Updated: May 12, 2020
The world has come to a standstill - reports say China's carbon emissions have been reduced by millions of tonnes due to reduced economic activity caused by COVID-19. Thousands of people around the globe are staying home in a bid to curb the outbreak. What do these changes mean for our planet? Can we make reduced emissions the new norm? Is this the push we needed towards a revolution of the way we work, live and play within planetary boundaries?
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought life as we know it to a standstill. As we sit in our homes, telecommuting, following the news and figuring out how to keep cabin fever at bay, the Earth is taking a breath of fresh air for the first time in years. It comes as no surprise that once humans had been locked indoors and most economic activities stopped, air quality began improving in cities around the world. For instance, Dhaka, once the world’s most air polluted city, is now seeing an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 91, down from 260-319 at the start of the year. Levels of NO2 and PM2.5, two air pollutants that often cause premature deaths have also seen sharp declines in cities. China’s carbon emissions have even reportedly been cut by 100 million metric tons.
Yet, experts say the drastic lockdown measures that resulted in these improvements have shown just how attached our economy is to pollution and carbon emissions. If it takes this much effort to curb a global pandemic, how much will it take to fight climate change? Will people take those steps? Perhaps this mass global telecommuting experiment can teach us that we can certainly work in different ways. As we live in reduced capacities, perhaps companies will begin to find modus operandi that do not exacerbate the effects of climate change. In this article, we will look at some potential impacts the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown situation may have on the world, from a circular economy perspective.
An overhaul of the global supply chain - stronger domestic production of food and resources.
From iPhones to car parts, clothes and food - the world certainly felt the impact of a globalised supply chain as China shuttered its factories and many countries closed borders in the wake of the virus. Before the pandemic, we were concerned about climate change and overuse of fertilisers leading to food-supply shortages from exporting nations. Now, the shortage may be amplified due to supply route disruptions. The coronavirus has certainly been a wake-up call for countries to take larger strides towards strengthening local food production in order to prevent supply shortages and high prices. Fresh produce, in particular, is a key import for many countries including Singapore, who imports over 90% of all the food consumed in the country. Singapore has already been working on a stronger local production of fresh produce, with a goal of 1/3 of our food needs to be local-grown by 2030. The transition to increased local production calls for AgTech innovation, including alternative meats and proteins, climate-resilient and closed-loop farms, indoor vertical farms and controlled fish farms, to name a few. Many of these technologies use circular economy principles to operate, such as making the most of resources and keeping materials in a loop to prevent waste. Greater reliance on local food is also a great way of lowering carbon footprint, as food miles are lower compared to exporting from thousands of miles away.
2. “That meeting could have been an email” - The Rise of Telecommuting.
The world is conducting the largest ever “work-from-home experiment”, with nearly every country in the world telling workers to stay home or reduce capacity in the office to facilitate social distancing. We are discovering that many of the jobs we do can be done just as well from our homes. In the UK, employees spend an average of 4.6 million hours a day commuting and fixed working hours mean that traffic jams account for millions of tons of greenhouse gases. From a systems-perspective, it would be too simple to say telecommuting can definitely lower carbon emissions. If a worker takes a high-polluting vehicle to work daily, then his WFH period would lower his carbon footprint much more as opposed to someone who takes public transportation. Further, this article highlights some other considerations including weather, energy sources, carbon offsetting and individual responsibilities for lowered emissions which might all play a part in determining how telecommuting impacts carbon emissions. In the fight for a sustainable planet, and as the virus outbreak has shown us, we are more than the sum of our parts. Nevertheless, if this experiment winds up successful, we can move towards a more sustainable world where more of us can telecommute and avoid taking polluting vehicles for long distances to work.
3. A rapid rise in health-consciousness leading to lowered meat consumption
As people start taking vitamin C supplements and attempt to boost their personal immune systems to ward off the virus, there is also an impending investigation into why and how the coronavirus outbreak occurred and how to boost humanity’s immune system against future outbreaks. Diseases originating from animals are nothing new - from bird flu to swine flu, Ebola, MERS, SARS and now COVID-19. Three out of four new infectious diseases in humans originate from animals. What sets COVID-19 apart is its highly infectious nature compared to its predecessors. It is said to be mild, but the potent effects it has had on our daily activities are certainly not. Experts warn that with increasing urbanisation and habitat-destruction, humans may come into closer contact with wild animals. The wildlife trade, in particular, poses a large risk of transmitting diseases from animals to humans. As awareness grows about the dangers of zoonotic diseases, perhaps it is more necessary than ever to reconsider our large-scale farming and land-clearing activities. If this awareness translates to actions, the world may see a shift away from meat-focused diets (whether from a desire to avoid catching zoonotic diseases, or from a collective effort to tackle climate-intensive farming activities). The meat industry contributes to 18% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Lowering this number would not be a bad thing for our planet. Alternative meats and proteins as well as a growing interest in vegetarian diets are likely to follow, encouraging green entrepreneurs such as Urban Tiller to continue the great work they do.
On the other hand, the aftermath of COVID-19 could potentially be disastrous for climate change as production is amplified to cope with the losses.
1. As airlines get grounded and run out of cash, there is fear that voluntary carbon-offsetting efforts and climate pledges may take a back seat as companies scramble to recover after the pandemic ends.
2. It is estimated that the annual emissions for China will only fall by 1% if the short-term reductions last. The government is also preparing a stimulus package that includes coal burning and ramping up use of cement and steel. Amplified production post-pandemic might be a step backwards in the fight to decarbonise the economy. Even during the pandemic, countries like Poland are easing their emission-cutting policies using the virus as an excuse. In the US, the EPA has suspended enforcement of environmental laws, giving companies an “open license to pollute” citing COVID-19 as a reason.
3. The transition to renewables may be a harder fight than ever before as the world faces an impending recession. With finance becoming more elusive, investment in renewables might take a hit.
As we face these unprecedented challenges in 2020, it is more urgent than ever to have a collective understanding that our actions have consequences. As we clean up the wildlife trade, and boost our public health systems, and attempt to recover our economies - it is worthy to remember that economic growth does not have to be tied indefinitely to environmentally destructive activities. The transition to a circular economy can help us open up new opportunities to recover materials and create new economic opportunities, potentially helping us come out of the pandemic stronger and ready to build a sustainable, resilient and safe world.