By Suraya Hamdulay, Executive Partner at Tsa Rona Insight & Analytics
One of the most encouraging outcomes of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is the opportunity to literally stop, reflect and introspect. One of the many aspects that most people may be thinking about during COVID-19, is man’s relationship with nature and the environment.
No matter how bad COVID-19 might seem, there are some positive elements of the lockdown… for the first time in living memory, almost all human activity literally stopped during the COVID-19 pandemic. Drone footage of most modern cities around the world, according to latest media reports, showed endearing scenes of nature reclaiming its natural place- kangaroos roaming streets, deer lounging on sidewalks and penguins crossing the street. For the first time, residents in some of the world’s most polluted cities saw their mountain landscapes for the first time, and shoals of dolphins were seen swimming close to shore. All these deserted locations reminiscent of apocalyptic sci-fi movies, surreal almost-but actually true.
As countries emerge from lockdown, climate experts already predict that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could drop to proportions never seen since World War II (Global Carbon Project, 2020). This outcome is mainly due to the social distancing policies adopted by the governments following the appearance of the COVID-19 pandemic. As lockdowns were enforced, some of the biggest contributors to CO2 emissions such as power plants and industrial facilities halted their production and the use of vehicles also decreased considerably. In fact, a study, published in Nature Climate Change found that daily emissions decreased by 17% – or 17 million tonnes of carbon dioxide during the peak of the confinement measures in early April, compared to mean daily levels in 2019.
In some parts of the world such as China and Europe, it has been reported that air pollution was drastically reduced since respective governments ordered citizens to stay at home in order to help contain the spread of the virus. Around the world, levels of harmful pollutants like Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Carbon Monoxide (CO), Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) and Small Particulate Matter (PM2.5) have plummeted at least, while shutdowns continue.
These environmental benefits will, however, only be temporary unless we implement long-term measures to cut emissions. It’s a stark reminder that air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, is a global threat that can’t be forgotten, even during these challenging times.
In this global crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become apparent that people and nations have a most unbelievable opportunity, an opportunity to reconnect with nature. With the reset button being pressed, countries, leaders and businesses alike have been given a chance to reimagine their relationship with the environment in order to ensure that future generations can inherit an earth that can sustain them. The key question though, is how will this new relationship be shaped?
Experts warn that despite lower air pollution levels in the short term, our environment may not see any long-term benefits. This situation occurred following the 2008 global financial crisis, when greenhouse gas emissions rebounded as the economy recovered. Concerns have also been raised that environmental policies will be relaxed, which is currently occurring in the United States (US) and Australia, and that investment in renewable energy technology will slow.
However, scientists, leaders and activists are pushing for an urgent public debate so that the global recovery from COVID-19 focuses on clean energy and more stringent environmental policies. In April 2020, the United Nations (UN) climate chief warned that global emissions must be capped now to meet the Paris agreement of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.
A simple way that we can implement change as individuals is one that we’re already adjusting to: travelling less. However, according to the International Energy Agency the biggest sources of global emissions are power generation, heavy transport and industry. Reducing emissions requires a transition away from fossil fuels to cleaner energies, as well as greater energy efficiency. That takes action from governments and industry leaders, not just individuals.
But it will be critical for government and business leaders to work together. A recent report from Edelman, confirms that governments were seen as far more effective in combating the virus when they partnered with business. The study finds that 62 percent of employees trust their employer to respond effectively and responsibly to the coronavirus outbreak and they also put more faith in information coming from their employer than any other source. This presents a new responsibility for many CEOs: Serving as the “primary source of truth” for their employees and their families when lives are at stake.
The establishment of the Solidarity Fund in the wake of COVID-19 is a leading example of the establishment of a social compact that it’s aimed at mobilising funds and resources from government, businesses, organisations and individuals to assist the most vulnerable in society. Similarly, this is the kind of leadership we need to tackle the climate crisis. Crisis drives innovation. Ultimately, we must collectively approach our environmental crisis with the same urgency and innovation as we have the COVID-19 crisis if we are to lessen the effects of global warming.