As the world tries to comprehend and survive the impact of COVID-19, this crisis of a generation has also yielded some thought-provoking moments that approach positivity, at least when it comes to the environment. As cities across the globe went into lockdown mode, citizens marvelled at the way industrial smog gave way to clear blue skies, and how wildlife returned to serene waterways emptied of tourist-filled vessels.
But while these scenes may be some of the few bright spots in the current grim situation, SMU Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society Winston Chow cautions that a few months of staying indoors is far from enough to heal Mother Earth. Here are three ways to truly make a difference when it comes to sustaining these glimpses of nature in equilibrium.
1. LEARN THE RIGHT LESSON
Marvelling at the way wild animals have ventured into once-bustling urban spaces is one thing, but consider this — the past few months have seen the most widespread pause in human activity in recent memory, and yet this has still not been enough to reverse the trajectory of global warming. In fact, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast in March that 2020 would be a hot year — with a 75 per cent chance of overtaking 2016 as the hottest year on record.
This is sobering data, and our next steps must also take into account the ongoing fight against the pandemic. Very warm and dry weather conditions are potentially fatal for communities in lockdown, especially those without access to air conditioning. In other words, the stakes were already high, and they have just been raised. Governments must take these heightened stakes seriously as they plan for how to protect vulnerable communities in the uncertain future.
2. BUILD ON POSITIVE MOMENTUM
That said, global lockdowns have reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Association recently announced that the world is on course to reduce close to 8 per cent (or about 2.6 billion tonnes) of current greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2020.
To put that into perspective, that is roughly equivalent to the annual emissions reductions needed from this year onwards to limit warming to the Paris Agreement 1.5 degrees Celsius limit. So this is actually an encouraging statistic.
What we need to do is to sustain the decreases, in order to get greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero. That will happen when human-caused emissions are balanced out by either natural or artificial removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
One possible pathway for governments: invest in clean energy technology and retrofits to improve energy efficiency, as well as in the restoration of carbon-rich habitats. This was suggested in a recent study co-authored by prominent economists Lord Nicholas Stern and the Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz.
3. HELP WORKERS PIVOT TO GREENER PASTURES
The Stern-Stiglitz report surveyed 230 finance and economic experts from G20 countries to assess the costs and benefits of government spending on different post-COVID recovery policies. One of the measures ranked highly by these experts is the educating and training of workers in carbon-intensive industries affected by COVID-19.
In fact, this is one instance where decline exacerbated by the pandemic can yield a substantial silver lining. The oil industry, for instance, has seen record price drops due to substantial oversupply and demand loss from decimated land transport and aviation sectors, and its long-term recovery is in question.
Rather than unconditional financial bailouts and subsidies, which largely benefit executives over vulnerable workers, a more sensible policy would be to retrain and redeploy this sector’s highly-skilled workforce towards future low-carbon industries, such as carbon capture and storage. This approach would help to foster resilient economic growth while lowering carbon emissions.