The skies have cleared in Lahore, a city known for very poor air quality. But so has been the case in many parts of the world. The coronavirus pandemic and climate debate is getting heated up. For some – mostly environmentalists and climate enthusiast – it is a warning from mother nature for the ill treatment of environment and climate crisis. Then there are others who do not believe in the climate-coronavirus connect, rather blame the destruction of natural habitat and the wildlife.
The executive director of the UN Environment Programme has said that the continued erosion of wild spaces has brought the world uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbour diseases that can jump to humans. A research shows that 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife. Most of the recent infections like HIV, Ebola, Zika, SARS, MERS and bird flu have jumped from animals to humans.
But even for others– the less aggressive ones – it is a live show of how globalization and industrialization has contributed to the deterioration of environment. At the risk of sounding sadistic, the pandemic is showing how important it is to bring the environmental change. Levels of air pollutants and greenhouse emissions have started showing significant drops in many urban centres as countries adopt measures to control and fight Covid-19 by mass lockdowns.
As industries, transport sector and businesses have closed down, there has been a sudden drop in emissions. It has been witnessed in China when only in the beginning there was a 25 percent decline in CO2 emissions and around 40 percent decline in coal usage. Compared to 2019, the level of pollution in New York reduced by 50 percent in March 2020. Emission cut has been between 40-60 percent for Europe in the last few weeks. The Air Quality Index for Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad have also witnessed improvement amid country-wide lockdown. At least the air quality is no more in the hazardous category.
So are these environmental changes and reduction in CO2 emissions fleeting or permanent? The good news is that global CO2 emissions could fall as much as 5.5 percent year-on-year in 2020. The bad news is that the cut would is very much likely to be short-lived so much so that 2021 could see emissions peaking again as economies return to business as usual. So happened after 2008 Financial Crisis.
The utmost for economies right now is to come out of the lockdowns safe and sound and resume their previous lives. With that in mind, it is plausible that the plan is to go back to “business as usual” by providing bailouts to the transport, industrial and the aviation sector in particular – all three key contributors to global greenhouse emissions. In China that witnessed 25 percent decline in carbon dioxide emissions in February 2020 is back to burning coal by the end of March 2020 according to Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
But if coronavirus is considered a reset button, climate and environment could intelligently be made part of business and economic activity. Energy and power consumption mix could be made more environmental friendly with government facilitating solar and other clean energy technologies in various segments. Airlines could be subject to stringent emission protocols as they make a return and look for stimulus. In that sense, coronavirus could be the tipping point. But that looks too farfetched.