While the human life and economy has suffered a great disruption and loss worldwide on account of the coronavirus pandemic, it also opened a debate if there is a silver lining for the environment protection and climate change. With the travel by road, rail and air severely declined across the globe, and construction activities slowed down, there has been considerable drop in air pollution in several regions during March and April months. In India and many other countries, where industrial wastes are recklessly dumped into rivers and other water reservoirs, a considerable improvement in the quality of water in rivers due to reduced pollution has been noticed at many places with most industries closed due to lockdown. In a nutshell, almost every country across the globe is experiencing clean air for the terrestrial life and water for the aquatic life. This is a new phenomenon that both the environmentalists and common people are experiencing and acknowledging from many parts.
According to an estimate in China alone, lockdowns and other measures led to reduced carbon emissions by around 25 per cent in a short time of about 4 weeks in February-March 2020, which is equivalent to about 200 metric tonnes of Carbon Dioxide (CO2), which may have saved thousands of lives during the period. In countries like India where the air quality index remains poor often crossing dangerous levels in certain parts of the year in the national capital Delhi and several other major cities, the air has suddenly become so fresh and livable. However, this joy needs to be relished with a rider that the resumption of activities and efforts to compensate the industrial and manufacturing losses may soon negate the environmental impetus and advantage so gained. Besides, the coronavirus outbreak has also disrupted environmental diplomacy efforts of the countries, including the postponement of the United Nations Climate Change Conference scheduled in Glasgow, UK in November 2020.
Global Impact of COVID-19 on Environment
The first and foremost effect of the pandemic has been on the socio-religious life of the human beings across the globe. More than half of the world population has been experiencing various degrees of lockdown and social distancing. Every country is virtually quarantined from the rest of the world, suspending visas and barring international travel except with some exceptions and under certain circumstances. Similar measures have been taken by sealing the land borders for international traffic between countries. Movement within the country has been severely curtailed in most affected countries with public and private transport services including air, rail and roadways suspended. The schools, colleges, and other educational and training institutions are closed; public gatherings, cinema halls, clubs, gyms, swimming pools and public parks are shut down. Temples, churches, masjids, gurudwaras, and other religious places have been closed for mass gathering and worship. All political and social meetings, big sports and cultural events including the next Olympics scheduled during July-August 2020 in Tokyo, Japan have been postponed.
In most parts of the world, only essential services are open during the lockdown and curfew. Usually these services include hospitals, nursing homes; police and fire stations; banks, insurance offices, ATMs, print and electronic media; supplies of food items, groceries, fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat, fish and animal fodder; E-commerce of essential goods such as pharmaceuticals and medical equipment; telecommunication, internet, broadcast and cable services; petrol pumps, LPG, piped gas and gas retail outlets; and capital & debt markets, and such other notified essential services. This has led to global reduction in industrial and manufacturing activities and slowing down of economic activity even risking yet another bout of recession after 2008.
Consequently, the majority of people in different countries have stayed indoors during most of the March and April months with by and large same trend followed in May 2020, either voluntarily or forced by the governments. However, this ramping down of human activity has a positive note too in the context of its impact on the global climate and environment. Globally the transport and industrial emissions and effluents have considerably reduced, and this fact is also vindicated by the measurable data on pollution in the air, water and soil. Usually, the months of April and May register high carbon emissions in the southern hemisphere due to the harvesting activities, decomposition of leaves and other vegetation with the onset of summer, in addition to usual transport and industrial pollution; but this year pollution has been less and, reportedly, China alone has recorded nearly 25 percent less emissions during this period.
According to reports, apart from the CO2 levels, China and Northern region of Italy have also registered significant decline in their nitrogen dioxide levels. With industrial production and manufacturing activities slowed down, there is a significant drop in energy use, particularly the commercial use of electricity, and consequent emissions and pollution levels in almost all parts of the world. Certain megacities in India such as Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Lucknow, and so on, almost perennially have air pollution beyond the acceptable limits but even these cities have recorded average air quality index (AQI) often staying within two digits. Thus the lockdown across the world and consequent decrease in human activities has been good for the minimizing the harmful effects of the greenhouse gases.
Nearly a month back, there was a heartwarming news in circulation about the residents of Jalandhar city in Punjab province, India waking up to see the scenic view of the snow-clad Dhauladhar mountain peaks of Himachal Pradesh, thanks to the clean air from lockdown. This development was reported only few days after the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) released a report on how the lockdown imposed towards the March end in India resulted in significant improvement in air quality index across the country. The aforesaid sighting is indeed a rare feat considering the aerial distance between Jalandhar city and Dhauladhar range of nearly 200 kilometers. Similar instances have been reported at other districts too; for instance, Shivalik range in Nepal is about 60 kilometers from Bahraich district of Uttar Pradesh province and these days these mountains are routinely visible from the city due to clean air.
Lockdowns across the world restricting travel and industry to contain the spread of coronavirus have resulted in significant reduction in deadly air pollution not only in China and India - two large and most populous countries of the world – but also in other affected countries. The major megacities of Asia such as New Delhi, Seoul, Wuhan and Mumbai among many others, experienced significant improvements in air quality during the lockdown period with the reduction of the dangerous particulate matter by up to 60% from the usual levels . This harmful particles of 2.5 micrometers and below are considered dangerous as it can lodge deep into lungs as also pass into other organs through blood stream causing serious health risks. According to WHO, nearly seven million people are killed annually due to air pollution; hence reduction of global heat-trapping emissions is the best way to purify air of our skies and minimize pollution-related deaths.
Aforesaid facts are also highlighted in the report released coinciding the 50th Earth Day celebration on 22 April 2020 with the theme of “climate action”. Among Indian cities, both Delhi and Mumbai experienced much cleaner air quality with about 60 percent reduction in particulate matter 2.5 levels during three weeks lockdown from 25 March to 14 April 13 compared to the same period in 2019. The Chinese city of Wuhan, which is also the origin place with maximum impact of Covid-19 disease in China, about 44 percent drop in air pollution levels were recorded from 26 February to 18 March compared to the same period last year. Yet another Asian megacity Seoul in South Korea had experienced about 54 percent reduction in particulate matter 2.5 from the previous year during the same period. Globally elsewhere too, many cities have reported cleaner air wherever the lockdown was enforced. Los Angeles in California recorded similar drop in the particulate matter by about 31 percent in March; in Europe, both London and Madrid experienced considerable reductions in the improvement of air quality compared to 2019 during the lockdown period.
The Indian rivers and water bodies are among the more polluted and mismanaged water systems across the globe. However, the impact of lockdown on account of coronavirus disease is clearly visible in the water of Indian rivers and other water bodies, particularly the major river system Ganga, with significant reduction of water pollution level. The CPCB in India constantly monitors water quality in rivers and according to them the Ganga water is suitable for bathing and conservation of fisheries in many stretches where it was considered unfit for use in the past. According to the real-time water monitoring data of the CPCB, out of the 36 monitoring units placed at various points of the Ganga River, the water quality around at 27 points was found suitable for bathing and propagation of wildlife and fisheries. In fact, Ganga water at Rishikesh and Haridwar in Uttarakhand state was reported to be fit even for drinking due to nearly 500 per cent decrease in pollutants.
Since almost all major industries dumping their effluent and wastes are closed, the toxic load is considerably off from the rivers. Apart from Indian rivers and water bodies, the improvement in water and aquatic life has been reported from some other countries too. One such heartwarming report was received from Venice, Italy which is famous for its canal system, forming one of the major water-traffic corridors in the city. The water in the canals has become clear with greater water flow and visibility of aquatic life. It has been officially clarified that this increased clarity is on account of deceased boat traffic following the lockdown in Venice; the heavy boat traffic otherwise disturbs the sediments and silt deposited in the canal. The fishing fleets across the world are idle due to pandemic which is likely to improve otherwise constantly depleting fish biomass and other aquatic life.
Global Exploitation of Natural Resources
There cannot be a greater paradox that the causative agent of the Covod-19 disease which is now threatening the life and economy of the man across the globe is product of the same nature which has been recklessly exploited by him all these years for the fast economic growth commensurate with man’s insatiable greed and prodigality. The continuous and indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources for the material comfort, economic prosperity and progress has necessarily accompanied with the environmental degradation and global warming. Though the beginning was made with industrial revolution in Europe in the eighteenth century itself; the process was accelerated in the nineteenth century with the extraction and processing of raw materials, such as minerals, steam power and machinery; and during the 20th century, consumerism and use of energy rapidly increased. While recklessly exploiting fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas for energy production, the man has even overlooked the fact that these energy sources along with subsoil minerals are non-renewable resources and may exhaust soon owing to reckless use.
Forests and pastures have been indiscriminately destroyed over the years for intensive agriculture disregarding the natural environment, and industrial toxic effluents and sewage freely released in the rivers and water bodies, leading to the degradation of the terrestrial ecosystem and water pollution in the aquatic ecosystem to dangerous levels. During the latter half of the twentieth century, the world population had phenomenal increase owing to comfort of life and better medical care along with the economic growth; and this is yet another causative factor for the fast depletion of natural resources and deterioration of environment. A significant factor putting the resources prone to easy exploitation in the recent decades has been the sophistication of technology: For instances, in the past axes and hand saws were used to cut trees involving considerable labour and time but now the same task is accomplished through electric powered saws and other electromechanical equipment with greater efficiency and ease.
The ever growing consumer culture is responsible for the pace of extraction and exploitation of resources with their end use without concern for future. Also this has prompted not only the production of commodities necessary for human life but also the habit of consuming more than warranted and wasting a considerable part. The damage is done partly due to the lack of awareness among people but mainly because of the excessive self-indulgence, greed and prodigality. The large scale deforestation is leading to more desert land, avoidable migration and extinction of species, soil erosion, water pollution, ozone depletion, greenhouse gases increase and natural disasters like large scale floods. Then among the most exploited items on earth are the sand, water, soil, fossil fuel, trees and palm oil. The latter is the most common vegetable oil commonly used with items like bread, chocolate, margarine, soap, lipstick, and so on across the globe; but its large scale exploitation is responsible for ecological damage in the countries of its use.
Greenhouse Gases and Global Warming
A greenhouse gas is understood as a gas that absorbs and emits radiant energy within the thermal infrared range and the primary greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere are water vapour, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane and ozone. In the absence of these gases, the temperature of Earth's surface would be negative and render it unlivable but the natural cyclic activities on earth keep the average temperature in the range of 14-15 °C, normally considered as fit for life. So widely used jargon “Greenhouse effect” is actually the warming of Earth's surface and the adjacent layer of the atmosphere (troposphere) through the natural process following the absorption and emission of heat due these gases in the air. Thus the Earth’s atmosphere acts like a greenhouse regulating Sun’s heat, thereby ensuring that the global temperature is maintained at a level suitable for the emergence and sustenance of life forms, including human race. Hence any imbalance due to indiscriminate human activities may prove catastrophic to life on Earth. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the global climate is about one degree Celsius warmer due widespread industrial activities.
Ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth century, the concentration of such atmospheric gases mainly carbon dioxide has been constantly growing and according to environmental data there has been nearly 48 percent increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) till 2019 i.e. from 280 ppm in 1750 to 415 ppm in 2019. This increase is mainly on account of emissions of CO2 from the combustion of fossil fuels viz. coal, oil and natural gas; and sizeable contribution also comes from the deforestation, soil erosion, change in land use and agriculture. According to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), this emission at current rates may increase the global temperature by 2 °C by 2036. This may turn out to be catastrophic for the life on earth as the current state of global warming is already leading to faster melting of glaciers around the world including Antarctica and Arctic region, and consequent rise in ocean level. The global warming due to greenhouse effect caused by anthropogenic activities bringing undesirable climatic change is undoubtedly harmful for life on Earth. The current spate of lockdown across the countries has temporarily slowed down emissions of CO2 and other gases responsible for the global warming.
Global Initiatives on Climate Change
The dangers of global warming are well known and climate change initiatives have been independently taken at the national level by many countries as well as international level under the aegis of the United Nations (UN) during the past few decades. For instance, few commitments/actions of the major countries / European Union following the UN Climate Action Summit held at the UN headquarters in New York City on 23 September 2019 are briefly indicated here:
- Sixty-five (now 77) countries and the European Union pledged to cut Greenhouse gas emission to zero by the year 2050;
- India promised to build their renewable energy capacity to 175 gigawatts by the 2022 to be gradually augmented to 450 gigawatts;
- China announced to undergo through "high quality growth and low-carbon development" with a targeted removal of 12 billion tons from the annual global Greenhouse gas emission;
- France pledged to not enter into trade deals with countries having policies in violation of the Paris Agreement.
- The European Union promised to give a quarter of its budget to climate action in the next year;
- The Russia pledged to ratify the Paris Agreement, with a commitment to reducing the emissions by 30% from the level of 1990 by the year 2030.
After many years of bickering by the countries at the UN forum, the Paris Agreement on climate was signed in April 2016 and made effective from November 2016 within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), dealing with greenhouse-gas-emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance. This Agreement has set a long-term temperature goal to keep the global average temperature well below 2 °C above pre-industrilization levels, recognizing that this would largely minimize the risks and impacts of climate change. The main target of the member countries would be to reduce carbon and other harmful emissions as early as feasible, in order to "achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases" in the second half of the 21st century. The agreement is also targeted to increase the ability of members to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change, and arrange necessary funding consistent with a pathway towards achieving targeted low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.
The efforts on global warming have, however, already received a jolt with the US President Donald Trump announcing in June 2017 of their intent to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. Needless to mention that currently US is among the top users of fossil fuel based energy and the biggest contributors of Carbon emissions in the world. Under the agreement, the earliest effective date of withdrawal for the US is November 2020; but reportedly the commensurate changes in United States policy contrary to the Agreement have already been put in place. Iran and Turkey are other significant nations which are not party to the Paris Agreement. As per a study in Nature (A popular global education movement), none of the major industrialized nations were implementing the policies envisioned by them as of 2017 and have not met their pledged emission reduction target. The 26th session of the member nations to the UNFCCC was scheduled in November 2020 in Glasgow, UK, which has been postponed to 2021 due to current pandemic.
Will Covid-19 Trigger Sustainable Climate Change?
The dramatic drops in air pollution reported from many cities of different countries due to Covid-19 disease have also been supported by satellite imagery offering a silver lining to otherwise gloomy prospects of climate change. This raises an obvious question for every sane and rational mind across the world whether the clean air and water so reported are sustainable even after the lockdowns are lifted and life returns to normalcy hitherto fore. A popular view getting strength is that this virus is going to stay for long and henceforth the life on the planet may not be usual as before, and also that people will learn to live with reasonable social distancing, minimum livelihood requirements and fairly controlled economic activities. If it is indeed achieved, such a situation may be ideally suited for a stable climate and favourable environmental conditions.
But the habit of self-indulgence, greed and prodigality of human beings across the globe leaves little scope of this change for good. The contrary and more plausible scenario could be that the post-Covid-19 rebound could be even worse. This view is also supported with the practical experience in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008. Reportedly, during the economic recession for about two years, the global carbon dioxide emissions on account of the burning of fossil fuels and cement manufacture had reduced by 1.4 percent; which registered an increase of 5.9 percent very next year in 2010 on revival. Already there are reports from China about the resumption and enhanced production activities. During the coronavirus crisis worldwide, the Chinese factories are possibly gearing up to work overtime for completion of overseas orders for the supply of equipment and accessories to fight the disease.
The United Nation’s annual climate summit scheduled from 9 to19 November 2020 in Glasgow, UK has already been postponed to the next year. It is a setback because the year 2020 was envisaged as “a pivotal year” for the efforts to address climate change and the member countries were required to submit their revamped plans to meet the emission reduction goals established under the Paris Agreement. Naturally, on one hand Covid-19 has given hope to clean air and water, on the other hand it has also inflicted a setback to an organized and pre-planned global agenda on climate change. Other meetings on climate at international level such as those on addressing biodiversity and oceans too have been abandoned pending normalcy owing to the coronavirus crisis.
Many countries have put on hold crucial climate initiative under the pressure and priority to fight coronavirus disease. Among the European Union (EU), Poland has called for the carbon trading program to be put on hold, Czech Republic has urged the Union to abandon its landmark climate bill, and different airlines have requested regulators to delay emission-cutting policy framework. Brazil has announced cuts on its enforcement duties, including protection of the Amazon from accelerating deforestation, a potential source of massive volumes of greenhouse gases. China has announced extension of deadlines for companies to meet environmental standards and USA opted out from the Agreement on climate change. These and other countries may have valid reasons for their action to relax the enforcement of some environmental rules as they gear up to fight pandemic and salvage economy but these measure will only prove counterproductive in the long run. The silver lining is that as many as thirteen European climate and environment ministers, including those of Italy and Spain, have reportedly insisted that the short-term solutions in response to present crisis must be resisted and the EU must stick to its 2030 climate goals.
Some researchers and environment experts see the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate the shift to clean energy alternatives, such as solar and wind. For instance, India currently at 5th global position in overall installed renewable energy capacity is already committed to green energy with an ambitious capacity building target with an aim to drastically cut down its carbon emissions. At present nearly one-fourth of its total installed capacity comprises of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy. Many other nations largely dependent on fossil fuel could gradually plan and shift to such energy sources drastically cutting down their carbon emissions in future. Currently in Europe, the prospects for green energy are more promising and countries like Germany and France are increasingly investing more seeking to achieve such goals. An expert view is that people are likely to learn a lot from the current coronavirus crisis that may have a positive impact on environment in future.
For the first time in the modern age, a pandemic has stunned the people, rich and poor equally, across the globe and forced them to master the art of living with minimum essentials of life. This has virtually halted their outings and travel, forced them to work from home, minimized external exposure and social interaction, and drastically curtailed extravagant and luxurious life styles. Many people increasingly believe that the life post-coronavirus would never be same as it used to be earlier. World’s most polluted cities are arguably located in the countries like China, India and Pakistan, and people even in these cities are temporarily experiencing cleaner air and water. Though it is due to forced contingency rather than as a consequence of advancing clean solutions, but it is likely to leave positive impact on people to realize how the quality of life and health improves with the clean air and water. People also have opportunity to learn how they could live with a lot less than what they were used to before this crisis. It will be interesting to watch the consumption pattern of people for some time to build a catagoric opinion after the coronavirus crisis is over.
Notwithstanding, this author feels that any short or relatively long spells of the pandemic is unlikely to bring any permanent change in life styles of people as also permanent solutions for the climate change. People tend to have short memories and it is more likely that they will mostly go back to their normal (old) way of life. A similar and far more devastating pandemic was Spanish flu in 1918-19 that infected approximately 500 million people across the globe, almost one-third of the world's population then, with estimated death toll anywhere between 17 to 50 million. This was possibly world’s deadliest pandemics in history, which did not bring any lasting changes in human life and social norms. The only difference appears that life was not as materialistic and energy dependent as it is now. Hence one could only hope with fingers crossed that this time nationalities will seek more permanent economic transformations with long term environmental solutions.
The temporary improvement in the environment and consequent current phase of clean air, water and skies is indeed a pleasant and welcome experience. Even in countries like India, people living far away in plains have pleasure to watch majestic mountain peaks in Himalayan region, and even many residents of the national capital Delhi, one of the most polluted cities of world, vouch for Yamuna river which looks cleaner now in many stretches. But let us not forget that the current situation is more out of human apprehensions and fear for life rather than any genuine desire to work for a healthy environment. Going by the past bitter experiences, it is more likely for the human beings to revert back to usual old routines or even for many of them with a greater turnaround to compensate their suppressed desires and cravings during the lockdown period.
Even at the national level, let us consider two most populous developing countries India and China, which are currently showing fastest growth rates in the world for many years. Comparatively, China is not so badly affected due to Covid-19 disease but the economy of India is hard hit due to priority given to save lives by implementing strict and prolonged lockdown. Then this country has its own complexities and compelling socio-political reasons to go for compensating losses through quick revival of economy. The pandemic has caused global tension and many multinational companies are seriously contemplating to shift their manufacture base from China to other countries. India appears to be among preferred destinations due to relative cheap labour and big consumer base and it has already shown willingness to cooperate with them and same may be true to many other countries. This would mean more industries and enhanced energy needs – known potential risk for the environment. There is yet another reason for the developing countries being willing to expand their economies, and that is, their keen desire to minimize gap between the “developed and rich” and “under-developed and poor”.
Hence the author personally does not see likelihood of people and nationalities learning lesson from the pandemic to change their life styles to pave way for minimizing industrialization and energy. However, even without this tragic experience, there was already reasonable awareness among many countries and citizens that a clean and green planet is necessary for survival and wellbeing of the mankind. Many developed countries of Europe and India are seriously engaged to minimizing carbon emissions by tapping more of the non-conventional and renewable energy sources. This concept is getting strength and momentum also due to the fact that the existing reserves of the fossil fuel may not last for long at the current consumption rate. Hence it is likely that the people would contribute to build a popular global opinion paving way for the respective governments to focus more on clean and green energy sources, such as solar, wind and tidal waves.