Covid-19 has got nothing to do with climate change? Think again.
Albert Camus penned "The Plague'' in 1947 while Rachel Carson wrote "Silent Spring'' in 1962. Both seminal books have become relevant once again at present as the global Covid-19 outbreak has clearly shown us pandemics are not the only existential threat that we face, climate change is real and visible too.
"Silent Spring'' depicted how the indiscriminate use of pesticides damages nature that even silenced the spring.
"In nature,'' Carson says, ''nothing exists alone" - everything we do has an effect on something or somewhere else. The book remains one of the most powerful rejections of industrial malpractices and is ''widely credited with triggering popular environmental awareness in the US and Europe.''
Meanwhile, ''The Plague'' is a story about a virus that spreads uncontrollably from animals to humans in the Algerian city of Oran. As the epidemic sweeps through the city, it spreads panic in every street. Then the town is sealed off by strict quarantine. Though Camus tells the story in a real setting and about a specific disease, the picture of a community "isolated and under invisible siege" has a universal quality.
It is relatable now. As China sneezes, its effects now ripple around the world. Corona is no longer a Chinese disease but a tragedy for everyone. Its invisible hands have sent a chill down the spine of almost all the countries of the world.
Areas under quarantine are increasing at a faster rate, just as the numbers of infected people are surging every day. The countries most hardly hit by corona are now Italy, China, Iran, Spain, Germany, the USA, France, South Korea, Switzerland, and the UK.
Besides the risk factors, there are different sides of Covid-19 too: behavioural, economic, political, social, and public health issues. It has also given the environment a chance to breathe a bit easier.
The hardest hit countries by the outbreak have now seen the most visible drop in pollution. Air quality in Italy, China, Spain, France, the UK, the USA, Switzerland, and South Korea improved dramatically after lockdowns, show satellite images.
European Space Agency data shows there is a sharp drop in nitrogen dioxide – one of the most abundant greenhouse gas pollutants – over northern Italy, the epicentre of the outbreak in Europe.
One of the unexpected knock-on effects of the lockdown is clearly visible in China. The world's largest yearly contributor to climate change China has seen a fall in the country's carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) by a quarter - close to what Chile emits in a year.
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions – largely driven by cars, power plants and industry – also dropped by 40 percent in the country, shows the data from European Space Agency's Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite, an instrument to measure air pollution from space.
Nasa researcher Fei Liu said: "This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event."
"There was a gradual reduction in China's NO2 linked to the 2008 economic recession and another around Beijing associated with the 2008 Olympics. There is also a well-known reduction in pollutants associated with Chinese New Year as factories and businesses across the country close," says John Bryson, professor of enterprise and economic geography at the University of Birmingham.
But Nasa's observation says this is the first time they have observed such a drop in NO2 across several countries beyond China.
The pollution reduction is a silver lining but is it here to stay? As the coronavirus outbreak eventually subsides, NO2 could return to pre-outbreak levels.
Bloomberg reports that several key climate policy events, including the ongoing UN climate talks and an EU-China climate summit have been postponed. "The UK scaled back plans to put environment at the centre of its budget last week. Spain, which has made climate change a central part of its political agenda, halted all legislative activity for at least two weeks and declared a state of emergency."
Unlike the response to global warming, the coronavirus outbreak has shown how political and business leaders can take ''radical emergency action." It can also help us gain empirical evidence to test if "radical rapid change on a global scale is possible."
"The biggest potential impact of this virus is the effect on the economy. So, if it affects the entire economy, then that's going to affect economic output, consumption, and emissions," said Christopher Jones, a climate policy expert at the University of California, Berkeley.
Demand for air travel, oil and electricity are falling as coronavirus spreads, cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Global air traffic fell by 4.3 percent in February.
But Rob Jackson, the chair of Global Carbon Project, said this would only be meaningful if it led to long-term behavioural changes, namely in aviation, which is one of the fastest-growing sources of emissions.
However, Covid-19 could also affect a household's carbon footprint. Studies suggested a recent spike in online shopping and home deliveries around the globe, especially for groceries. But will people continue the process of decarbonisation even after the pandemic is over? – This is a big question.
Studies also warn that the environmental impact of the Covid-19 may only be temporary as emissions will bounce back when China resumes industrial activities. If the short-term reductions last, annual emissions for the country will fall by just 1 percent, says Carbon Brief.
Also, historical evidence shows that global disasters, namely those with a major blow on the economy, tend to drive only a temporary fall in carbon emissions.
The 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak, oil shocks of the 1970s caused temporary drops in polluting activities before the economy waltzed into the high-emissions mode.
If we look back at the past, global carbon emissions also dropped in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, falling 1.3 percent in 2009. Yet Beijing's Rmb4tn stimulus package was a big contributor to a 10 percent rise in the country's carbon dioxide emissions in 2009, says the Financial Times.
South Korea already enacted roughly $10 billion in stimulus in the wake of the virus's spread, and Italy is planning an infusion of $8.4 billion, reports The Washington Post.
However, Helen Mountford of the World Resources Institute hopes "low-carbon and resilient infrastructure would be a priority in any stimulus package to avoid an uptick in emissions as economies recover."
Corinne Le Quéré, professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia, said, ''The crisis is only likely to slow CO2 growth, not reverse it. Over the past 10 years, emissions have grown at an annual rate of 1 percent. But even a slowdown would gain time for action – advances in technology, lower renewables prices and more public pressure on governments."
The dramatic decline in emission shown by satellite images of Italy and China during lockdowns proves - it is possible to hit the pause button on the upward trajectory of climate change. But, as Bryson argues, it remains to be seen whether these behaviours will trigger a longer-term change.
Regulation could force a shift to clean energy. But China, Italy, and the USA will catch-up when corona crisis is over as their industries are bleeding now.
Scientists and climate experts have maintained that the drop alone is not enough to soften the effects of climate change as it might be temporary. But a shift in behavioural patterns could set a precedent for change on a larger scale.