The end of March saw an influx of images of wild animals roaming cities freely as an amusing by-product of the otherwise devastating consequences of the spread of Covid-19. There was a goat snacking on a garden hedge, a family of wild boars strolling down major streets and a cougar sleeping in an apartment complex. My personal favourite, an elephant dozing after drinking some wine in Yunnan, China turned out to be fake. More amusing, however, were the captions that accompanied these photos. Phrases like ‘Nature is reclaiming the world’, ‘The Earth is healing itself’ and most notably, ‘We are the problem’ flooded social media platforms. It is a heart-warming sentiment, even if a little platitudinous. We all gobbled it up, myself included, clinging to anything resembling hope or goodness as we were all shut into our homes, worried and uncertain about the future.
Reports of lowered carbon and nitrous oxide emissions and decrease in air pollution levels were met with the same enthusiasm and applause. Even now, as I look at this chart of the concentration of nitrogen dioxide, I can’t contain the hope I feel.
It is, however, imperative that we take all this information with a grain of salt. It is more than likely that these unexpected great changes are fleeting. A glitch in the matrix, if you will. Over a four-week period since widespread lockdowns came into effect in February, China experienced an estimated 25% decrease in carbon emissions, but the applause can wait because that number already went down to 18% by March as coal production went back to regular levels. Stimulus packages from the Chinese government have also made it clear that China plans to grow its fossil fuel intense industries to jump start the economy as the year progresses.
The 2008 financial crisis can be a good example to look at when forecasting carbon emissions post-lockdown. There was a steep decline in global emissions resulting from the market crash due in large part by industries in developed countries shutting down. However, developing economies, particularly China and India, continued operations as usual and emission levels were at an all-time high in 2010 when the United States and the European Union restarted production. The drop in emissions registered as just a blip and greenhouse gas emissions have grown exponentially since. It is more than likely that this decrease, although considerably greater than the global financial crash, will eventually not accomplish much in the way of halting the rise of global temperatures beyond 1.5°C.
I say this because what we’re seeing right now is a rush to go back to normal. Countries are lifting shelter-in-place orders while cases keep climbing exponentially. People cooped up in their houses flock to any place that opens up just to have some bit of normalcy. Lockdowns are being lifted to allow businesses to resume operations. For countries like Pakistan, the Prime Minister’s narrative of the poor dying from hunger before any disease, is valid. And with rapidly increasing unemployment numbers throughout the world, kickstarting the economy in its current state might feel like the right thing to do.
That being said, while we try to protect citizens from a pandemic, hunger and job loss, we can’t forget to protect them from Climate Change, especially when Climate Change threatens people with exactly these issues and more. Additionally, climate-friendly practices like localizing production protects from large-scale supply chain collapses that we see during this crisis. Now that working from home has proven to be viable, it can be adopted on a regular basis to reduce air pollution caused by commuting to work. Most notably, renewables have shown immunity to the pandemic and are exhibiting an increased share in the energy demand for major countries while all other sources of energy have a reduced share. Thus, investing in and stimulating the renewable energy sector can provide nations with much needed stability when facing massive economic shocks like the one we are currently facing.
Complacency has no place in the age we live in. Capital interests are the highest priority in the eyes of governments and also the majority of the public. This makes it all the more important for us to say our piece and make our voices heard. Short term gains are undoubtedly important to rebuild struggling nations but without a clear and strictly followed policy for the long term, we will keep finding ourselves face to face with crisis after crisis, either similar or on a far worse scale. If ‘we are the problem’, then it’s about time we became the solution.