Lessons learnt from COVID-19 pandemic

by Mohammad Al Mamun | Published: 00:00, Jul 16,2020


— World Economic Forum

IT IS a great challenge for the 21st century to reduce greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) methane and nitrous oxide to have a clean environment sustainable for all the living beings on the planet. An excess amount of CO2 is one of the foremost candidates among greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. The analysis of trapped bubbles of carbon dioxide in ice cores has revealed that over millions of years’ increase in CO2 concentration is directly associated with increase in temperature. Around a third to a half of the CO2 released by human activities is absorbed into oceans. The acidity of the oceans, as a result, has increased by about 26 per cent since 1850, a rate of change roughly 10 times faster than any time in the past 55 million year. Associated chemical reactions can make it difficult for marine calcifying organisms, such as coral and some plankton, to form shells and skeletons, and existing shells become vulnerable to dissolution.

The detrimental impact of acidification will extend up to the food chain to affect economic activities such as fisheries, aquaculture and tourism. For example, the Sunderbans, a world heritage site, might fall in danger caused by a large-scale industrial construction around the mangrove forest, particularly the coal power plant which may emit a huge quantity of CO2, forecast by many environmentalists, scientists and science bodies, including UNESCO. Apart from this, the rising global temperature is accelerating the melting of ice in the polar region leading to a mounting of the sea level, increasing the frequency of natural catastrophes than ever before as well as shrinking the habitat in the ecosystem.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a big crisis we are now faced with, but we have already been living with a bigger one — climate change. There has been excitement about the falling levels of air pollution being seen in many countries because of lockdown to tackle the novel coronavirus. The measures enforced were ramped up from the isolation of symptomatic individuals to the ban of mass gatherings, mandatory closure of educational institutions and even obligatory home confinement. In addition, many international borders were sealed, which decreased transport and changed consumption patterns. Government strategies for the population confinement during the pandemic have drastically changed forms of energy demand all over the world along with their subsequent effects on CO2 emissions.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, emissions of carbon dioxide were rising by about 1 per cent a year over the previous decade, with no growth in 2019. Renewable energy production was expanding rapidly in reducing prices, but much of the renewable energy was being deployed alongside energy and did not replace it while emissions from surface transport continued to rise.

According to the recently published climate change report, ‘2020 in Nature’, a group of researchers explored an alternative approach of satellite measurements to estimate country-level CO2 emissions based on a confinement index conceived to capture the extent to which different policies affected emissions and available daily data of activity for six economic sectors such as power, industry, surface transport, public, residential and aviation sector. All the activity changes are relative to typical activity levels before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Along the lines of the compiled government policies and activity data to estimate a decrease in CO2 emissions during forced quarantines, the daily global CO2 emissions reduced by about 17 per cent (as in the figure) by early April 2020, compared with the mean 2019 levels, just under half from changes in surface transport. These numbers put in perspective both the large growth in global emissions observed over the past 14 years and the size of the challenge we have to limit climate change in line with the Paris Climate Agreement. Consequently, keeping track of the evolving CO2 release can help to inform government of reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic to escape locking future emissions routes in carbon-intensive pathways. There are some opportunities to set structural changes in motion by implementing economic stimuli aligned with low carbon pathways learning from various green practices through this COVID-19 pandemic.

The reduction in the surface transport accounts for nearly a half the decrease in emissions during confinement. Now when the containment measures are eased, active travel (walking and cycling, including e-bikes), which has attributes of social distancing and can help to cut back CO2 emissions and air pollution, is desirable. For example, cities such as Bogota, New York, Paris and Berlin are rededicating road space for pedestrians and cyclists to enable safe individual mobility, with some changes likely to become permanent while reducing the emphasis on cars. This could be the start of the green revolution. The government could play a vital role in encouraging the use of this environmentally-friendly vehicle. More importantly, wide awareness campaigns about the advantages of cycling to the environment seem imperative to heighten social awareness of environmentally-friendly transport.

During this COVID-19 confinement, many universities in the world have continued their teaching and learning activities; they have even successfully arranged their national and international conferences using online facilities with zero carbon emissions. At the time of this movement control order, the way of businesses has also changed remarkably, especially with people having adapted rapidly to online dealings such as negotiations, buying and selling goods, including online banking and transactions, leading to the reduction n CO2 emissions. Therefore, after the COVID-19 pandemic, a rethinking of supply chains could lead to a sustained decline in-transport related emissions. The government can use stimulus packages to bake in commitments to more sustainable and green business practices in future.

As we struggle to find our way back from COVID-19, individuals, companies and governments should not overlook the lessons the pandemic is teaching us about the need for getting ahead of crises. The strategies being executed today to offset the economic impact of months of lockdown might also decrease CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. As companies make calls about how, where and when to cut costs and where to invest post-COVID-19, they need to start using a green lens to make sure that decisions on such items as capital investment or asset withdrawal also reflect their future needs to shrink their carbon footprint.

Finally, combined efforts of world leaders in planning their economic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and in the post-pandemic world need to consider the net-zero emissions targets and plan accordingly to influence the pathway of CO2 emissions for decades to come.

The annual mean daily emissions in 1970–2019, updated from the Global Carbon Project. The encircled line demonstrates daily emissions up to the end of April 2020.Adapted from the Nature Climate Change report, 2020.


Mohammad Al Mamun, now doing his PhD at University of Malaya, Malaysia, is an assistant professor of chemistry at Jagannath University.

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