If we take one thing from the pandemic ravaging our world today, it’s that sudden change on a massive, global scale is not an impossible feat for us to accomplish, as many would argue and lobby against. We can cut CO2 emissions; we can use renewable energy; and we can all work from home more often to ease traffic congestion and save on energy bills. It’s a shame it took a cataclysmic event (as it often does) for us to realize that.
In humanity’s daily grind, be it the Average Joe’s 9-5 rat race or the corporate mogul’s relentless pursuit of profits and growth, little is sacred on the path towards progress. We sacrifice our health, the planet, and often other human beings in the pursuit of the mighty dollar (or applicable currency of choice).
In the West (and elsewhere of course), we often hear of large corporations and the rich finding ways to cheat the system and shirk their tax responsibilities, which today is money that could have been put towards fighting the viral outbreak and better equipping hospitals. Now, medical staff in countries like the US are turning away infected at the door, forced to prioritize “essential personnel” in a heart-wrenching exercise in pragmatism. We hear similar stories of this in Italy, where hospitals had to favor younger patients over older ones, whom were left to fend for themselves at home.
But the 1% aren’t the only ones to blame. The middle and lower classes too have a role to play in actioning change, little as it may be. We should recycle more, purchase only from sustainable producers, reduce our meat intake, and take more action towards cutting our CO2 emmissions. It’s simpler said than done, but it is possible.
The 1% thrives, the rest struggles to survive
The unfortunate reality of the situation, however, is that many members living on the lower economic scales of society have no choice but to succumb to the daily grind, as millennials are forced to realize today in an age of inflating rent and home values, among other things.
According to data from PovcalNet (an online tool provided by the World Bank for estimating global poverty), COVID-19 is likely to cause the first increase in global poverty since 1998, driving a change in the World Bank’s 2020 estimate of the global poverty rate of 0.7 percentage points – (8.6%-8.2%)-(7.8%-8.1%) – pushing about 40-60 million people into extreme poverty.
So despite the benefit of environmental recovery, the human cost has been dire. That’s not to mention the millions of people that are being let go or receiving salary cuts on a daily basis.
The Earth recuperates
Already, just a few months into this global lockdown, we are already seeing the benefits of a slowdown on an international scale. With factories closed, airplanes grounded and streets free from congestion, the Earth has been given a chance to recover from our centuries of exploitation. As many as 2.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, about 8% of the estimated total for the year, will never be emitted into the atmosphere in 2020, the International Energy Agency estimates, as reported by Bloomberg.
“Global demand for energy is set to fall by 6%, seven times the decline seen after the global financial crisis of 2008, according to the IEA’s forecast,” Bloomberg said. “In absolute terms the drop is unprecedented—the equivalent to losing the entire energy demand of India for one year.”
What’s surprised most of us, however, is how fast the Earth is at self-rejuvenation. A quick trip to social media networks shows how Venice’s waters have cleared, the smog over China and India is subsiding and wildlife is free to roam the Earth to a certain extent once more. In metropolitan centres with 24/7 lockdowns like Kuwait, cats and dogs are reclaiming the streets, lounging in the middle of roads that once carried vehicles travelling at 60 km/h. It’s a bizarre sight to behold from within our self-imposed cages.
But is this positive climate recovery permanent?
In fact, data from previous global catastrophes such as the 2008 financial crisis shows that a lull in emissions is often immediately offset by a boom in economic activity once said crisis subsides, as the world tries to make up for lost time.
After 2008’s Great Recession, “the Chinese government started the largest and most polluting economic stimulus programme in history, using billions of tonnes of steel and cement to build, causing a spike in China’s air pollution levels… and carbon dioxide emissions,” Lauri Myllyvirta of the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, Finland, told the BBC. “That could mean that a crisis like this could increase emissions in the years to come.”
If that is the case, with the daily grind inevitably making an unwelcome return, we’d better use this downtime to really consider our actions and choices towards environmental change moving forward. Just as we drastically changed our behavior to adapt to the pandemic, we need to adapt for the sake of our planet. We might not get another chance in this lifetime.