The impact of fewer planes and vehicles in our skies and on our roads, and less industrial activity, as a result of the COVD-19 crisis, is already being felt, as many media outlets are reporting. Here’s a round-up of what’s being said.
Air pollution has started to fall in many UK cities in response to the lockdown measures introduced as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Data collected by the National Centre for Atmospheric Science shows marked reductions in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and in particulate matter (PM2.5). And the falls look set to continue:
The pattern is reflected around the globe, with European Space Agency satellite data showing how nitrogen dioxide levels compare with a year ago:
The immediate impact on air quality – especially in major industrialised countries such as China, where severe air pollution is linked to around 1 million premature deaths a year – is evident – but can there be a longer-term impact on climate change?
One scientist is warning that long term, the pandemic could, in fact, be bad news for air quality and the environment. Dr Gabriel da Silva of the University of Melbourne warns that although satellites have witnessed drops in air pollution almost overnight, there is likely to be an ’emissions surge’ when the lockdown is eased which will leave the environment worse off as economies recover.
Moreover, a weak global economy threatens future investment in renewable energy, especially given the availability of cheap oil:
The University of Melbourne: COVID-19 drop in pollution to be short-lived
But other commentators point out that the plunge in the oil price to its lowest levels for 18 years has also demolished the lucrative returns on exploration projects to which investors have become accustomed. This also threatens the “golden dividend era” of the last two decades, which has made oil stocks mainstays of investment portfolios.
Most strikingly, the fat rates of return projected for the oil and gas projects have slumped from about 20% down to 6%, according to Valentina Kretzschmar of analysts Wood Mackenzie, putting them very much in line now with what investors can get from solar and wind projects. Combine this with a strategic shift by economies such as Saudi Arabia to ‘cash out’ of oil while they still can and the future of the oil industry post-pandemic starts to look very different:
But the big concern is that tackling climate change will still take a back seat to getting the global economy back on track as fast and as intensively as possible. The critical COP26 climate summit, scheduled to take place in Glasgow in November, has been postponed to an (as yet) unspecified date. Climate campaigners are watching intensively for signs of government bail-outs for the aviation industry. There are signs countries are already using the pandemic to revoke environmental commitments, such as clean car standards in the US.
Yet there are hopes that moving COP26 to after the US presidential elections (which could have easily overshadowed a November 2020 climate summit) could at least mean that a more climate-aware incumbent could be in the White House by the times the talks do take place.
But what is clear, say campaigners, is that the world cannot go back to business as usual once the pandemic recedes. And the greatest hope could lie in the way that the virus pandemic has triggered community action around the world. As George Monbiot observes: “We could revert to the isolation and passivity that both capitalism and statism have encouraged. But I don’t think we will. I have the sense that something is taking root now, something we have been missing: the unexpectedly thrilling and transformative force of mutual aid.”
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