Social media has been overwhelmed with photos of beautiful animals appearing at scenes usually known as crowded by humans. From dolphins swimming around the canals in Venice to drunken elephants in China enjoying nature finally left to them, these photos have been enthusiastically shared online. Just to turn out that most are fake. This has been disappointing to many who, during this pandemic, find meaning and hope in the idea that at least nature is thriving from all the restrictions imposed worldwide. Although sensational content about the environment prospering from COVID-19 should not be blindly trusted, there is some room for optimism. However, whether the Earth really is a beneficiary of the pandemic will be determined by what is done to revive the economy in the long run.
DROP IN POLLUTION
One can be happy that not all photos of clean Venice were fake; the water has indeed become much clearer, and fish can be seen swimming through the canal water. In the satellite images of China that NASA released last month, significantly reduced nitrogen dioxide emissions can be observed during February in comparison to January. Emissions in Europe, especially Northern Italy, have followed a similar decreasing pattern. Nitrogen dioxide emissions come from power plants, industrial facilities and transportation vehicles, and diminish the air quality by contributing to the formation of smog. Consequently, high emissions negatively affect the human respiratory system, causing infections, asthma, and chronic lung diseases. They also harm the vegetation by slowing down plant growth and causing acid rain. For these reasons, some have argued that COVID-19 has, through leading to better air quality, saved more lives than it has taken. An interesting analysis conducted by a Stanford economist on how more premature deaths have been prevented by lowered pollution than have been caused by COVID-19 can be found here.
Better known carbon dioxide emissions, released by the burning of fossil fuels, follow a positive pattern as well. Compared to the year before, levels of carbon pollution in New York have seen a drop of around 50% since the preventive virus spread measures have been imposed. In China, the biggest user of coal in the world, emissions fell by 25% at the beginning of 2020.
SHORT TERM BENEFITS THAT WILL LIKELY NOT LAST
The drop in toxic emissions is positive for the environment in the short run. It is less certain, however, whether such development is going to last once restrictive governmental measures recede. If we turn to the 2008-2009 global financial crisis as an exemplar, the pandemic will quite likely be a lost opportunity. Although the global recession caused the carbon dioxide emissions to decline during 2008 and 2009, the emissions grew by 5.9% in 2010 and continued to expand in the following years, until now. As the economy was recovering, the demand for fossil fuels rose on both the individual and industrial levels. Governmental stimulus packages did not do much to prevent this either. According to Li Shuo, a senior climate policy adviser for Greenpeace East Asia, the financial crisis was followed by what she calls revenge pollution: a bounce-back effect caused by fiscal stimulus that provides aid to heavily-polluting industries in order to revitalize the economy as soon as possible.
A large proportion of government stimulus worldwide is likely to go to hard-hit industries such as the airline, cruise-ship, oil and gas industry – all big polluters. The Canadian government is already preparing a multi-billion dollar financial aid for the oil and gas industry to help them overcome the drastic fall in oil barrel prices. Such examples are expected to follow globally, especially in transport industries such as the airline one. Besides the stimulus, the fact that oil prices have been falling due to both the production surplus in Saudi Arabia and Russia and lower global demand means that consumers will demand more of it as soon as movement restrictions abate. Following the simple logic of demand and supply, low prices will attract consumers to buy more oil, and more pollution caused by higher carbon dioxide emissions will follow.
OPPORTUNITY FOR A TRANSITION
In order to prevent the fate of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, calls for green package stimulus have been made. Governments around the world are now faced with a rarely powerful role in shaping the economy of tomorrow, and environmentalists urge for these decisions to be made with targets such as the Paris Agreement’s ones in mind. Infrastructure investments are especially called to be made in a more sustainable manner, such as the construction of green buildings, more investments in electric public transport, and subsidising organic food production. Dieter Helm, an Oxford energy policy professor, believes this is also the perfect time to introduce the carbon tax, which would tackle two problems at once: climate change and governments’ fiscal deficits.
The pandemic also has the potential to alter the way we work and learn. Telework, or work at home, might become more popular after the pandemic ends, meaning that emissions from travel to work or school could reduce. Conferences and other meetings that used to require flights to another location could take different forms and occur less often. Yet, consequences on the environment from working at home are not so clear. Electricity and heating that one uses when working at home might account for more emissions than if the person went to the office that has these utilities turned on anyway. Cost and benefit analyses of telework still need to be done before we get excited about it, but the potential for a change should be acknowledged.
COVID-19 will only help the environment if this extraordinary global phenomenon leads to a reorganisation of the economy. On the one hand, people are currently preoccupied with pressing problems such as saving their lives and jobs, which can diminish the motivation to fight for the climate. On the other hand, the feeling of unity that has been caused by the pandemic, which no country has managed to escape from, is promising. Most of us have been forced to stay at home, risk our financial stability and mental health, yet still follow authorities’ orders for the common interest. This unique experience might make humanity easier to persuade to sacrifice some of the benefits and comfort of the status quo for the future of the planet and next generations. However, while we wait to see if a mentality shift will occur on an individual basis, how governments decide to stimulate the economy should be carefully observed and discussed.