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Environmental challenges remain as world battles COVID-19

Industries will be re-fired on when COVID ends

After the Global financial crisis of 2008, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion decreased by 1.4% only to rise by 5.9% in 2010

COMMENT | Hillary Turyatunga | In a matter of a few months, the way of life of many globally has changed in a way many would not believe possible. Thousands have already lost lives and many more infected with the COVID-19 virus that was previously unknown until it appeared in the city of Wuhan in December 2019.

For the many that have not caught the disease, their entire way of life has changed. Streets of the once busiest cities in the world have been deserted after authorities implemented strict lockdown to curb the spread of the virus.

As the corona virus pandemic continues to impact millions across the world and bring economies to a grinding halt, there is a lot of talk about how the emissions from fossil fuel combustion have dropped radically in many countries.

This drop is attributed to a reduction in factory and road traffic emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and related ozone formation and particulate matter.

What we know that for the duration of reduced travels during this pandemic, these emissions will stay lowered. But what will happen when measures are eventually lifted and life gets back to normal?

When the pandemic eventually subsides, will carbon and pollutant emissions bounce back so much that it will be as if this clear skied interlude never happened? Or could the changes we see today have a more persistent effect?

All these questions seem to be left unanswered but it’s probably clear that cleaner air for a few months may be a tiny silver lining to COVID-19’s dark clouds but will do little to solve the problem of outdoor air pollution that claims lives of more than four million people according to World Health Organisation statistics.

We can clearly predict that following mandatory lockdowns, countries will be focused on restarting their economies by funding industrial activities while individuals who have stayed indoors for a good number of days will want to travel.

These actions and many others will play a big role in reversing the beneficial effects that have arisen from the pandemic response. In fact the rebound could be even be worse drawing lessons from the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008 where global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion decreased by 1.4% only to rise by 5.9% in 2010.

It is important not to perpetuate narratives of an environment saved by a few months quarantine and ignore the negative environmental impacts that have ensued. For example as a consequence of the unprecedented use of disposable face masks by communities, significant numbers are entering the natural environment, adding to the worldwide burden of plastic waste.

There has also been an increase in medical waste since much of the personnel protective equipment that health professionals are using can only be worn once before being disposed.

The pandemic has also impacted environmental and climate diplomacy as the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference was postponed to 2021 in response to the pandemic after its venue was converted to a field hospital as noted in a Wikipedia article published early April 2020.

This conference was crucial as nations were scheduled to submit enhanced nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement that was signed in 2016 to deal with greenhouse emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance. With most developing countries focussed on the pandemic, it limits their ability to submit substantial nationally determined contributions at the moment.

In conclusion, an excellent economic performance which results in environmental damage cannot be sustainable and the same applies to a poor economic performance in a good environment.  Efforts to boost the economy should therefore not be at the expense of the already affected environment.

The same way the virus has infected a number of people and increased the death toll globally could be equivalent to the way we pollute the environment and affect its health on a daily basis. It is in our power to protect the environment and keep it safe. We can only hope that respective authorities work towards a green economic recovery.

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The writer is a Research Intern, Environment and Natural Resource Governance Program at ACODE | Hillary@acode-u.org

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