The coronavirus pandemic is first and foremost a human tragedy, as known cases surpass one million and over 50,000 people have died.
The UN Secretary-General António Guterres said recently that the fight against COVID-19 is the world’s immediate priority. However, he added that it should not distract us from the climate crisis, which will remain with us for much longer and with greater catastrophic impacts.
Billions of people are currently adapting to restrictions to defeat COVID-19. Could these experiences help us visualize what a more sustainable and resilient world looks like and how we can confront climate change?
An unprecedented real-time experiment is underway around the globe
As planes are grounded and vehicles disappear from the streets, we are witnessing considerable reductions in air pollution and global greenhouse gas emissions in real-time.
Global responses to coronavirus are leading to a massive reduction in air pollution and emissions and may reduce health complications and premature deaths related to air pollution. In China, greenhouse gas emissions are down by roughly 25%. In Buenos Aires, Lima and Santiago de Chile, air pollution has plummeted due to reductions in traffic.
Air pollution is a global killer. A new study shows that air pollution causes an estimated 8.8 million extra deaths globally a year. Many Latin American cities suffer from severe air pollution. Conservative estimates suggest that every year 50,000 people die prematurely in the region due to air pollution caused mainly by transport.
In China, the pandemic has also sparked a debate about how longstanding air pollution affected the country’s ability to control the spread of COVID-19 and minimize the number of critical cases. Now there are calls for an increased effort, not only to improve the public health system that was put under immense pressure, but also to clean up the air that negatively affects people’s health.
A new study by Harvard University shows that COVID-19 patients in parts of the United States that had high levels of air pollution before the pandemic are more likely to die from the infection than patients in other parts of the country with cleaner air. Moreover, a study of the SARS epidemic in China found that patients from regions with high air pollution were twice as likely to die from SARS, as compared to those from regions with better air quality.
It is therefore likely that reductions in air pollution could help people confront COVID-19 and future pandemics, which are becoming more frequent due to habitat fragmentation, land-use and climate change.
Are the reductions in air pollution and emissions going to last?
While these reductions in air pollution and greenhouse gas emission may have some benefits, the pandemic is not the solution to the climate crisis. Any reductions in emissions and pollution caused by economic downturns will likely be ephemeral. After the medical emergency subsides and in the absence of strong efforts to transition to a net-zero emission economy, past experience suggests that emissions could quickly rise as industrial production and power generation resume.
A global recession brought on by the coronavirus could also undermine the transition to a green economy as companies struggle to secure financing from capital markets for renewable energy and electric mobility projects. The global supply chain for components such as solar panels and lithium-ion batteries – much of which are produced in China – has already being disrupted.
Emerging from this crisis, people may feel compelled to reassess their daily commute and continue to reduce business travel in favor of teleconferencing. However, as they emerge from self-isolation and in many cases grapple with personal tragedy, mental health issues and economic challenges, there might be a return to the status quo ante. People may well jump back into their cars and, in a worst case scenario, traffic pollution could even exceed pre-pandemic levels if people are worried about traveling in public transport.
COVID-19 is reminding us why clean air matters
The impacts of the pandemic on reducing pollution and emissions are a reminder of the heavy toll that air pollution exacts on our health. Once the COVID-19 crisis is over, policymakers and the private sector could look at ways to accelerate the electrification of public transport and remove polluting vehicles, which represent key steps in building a more resilient and healthier society.
For example, Latin America’s transport sector is the largest source of energy-related emissions in the region and its car fleet is responsible for 37% of total transport emissions. As countries work on revising their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), the conversation around COVID-19 and air pollution could play a role in helping to make the case for simultaneously boosting climate action and public health measures.
To get to net-zero emissions by 2050, and in order to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius, countries need to urgently reduce emissions by around 50% by 2030 and decarbonize the global economy via a just transition. This will require a transformation across several areas, including the electrification of transport and more frequent use of public and non-motorized transportation.
Promoting a shift to public transport and electrifying the transport sector is therefore essential to improve air quality and reduce emissions. Since 2017, the IDB has been working with public and private actors to mobilize investments in clean public transport to achieve just that.
The benefits could be enormous. If the current fleet of buses and taxis of 22 Latin American cities switch to electric vehicles, the region could save almost US$64 billion in fuel by 2030, avoid the emission of 300 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, and save 36,500 people from premature death. In the case of Costa Rica, the decarbonization of the transport sector will bring total net benefits of around US$18 billion by 2050, as a result from reduced congestion and fewer accidents.
Fortunately, we do not need a pandemic to build a sustainable society, as the world already has much of the technology, finance and policies to do it. COVID-19 may well be helping us to visualize a more sustainable world. As we emerge later from this crisis, reducing air pollution and electrifying transport are two ways to bring a sustainable and resilient future one step closer.
Photo: Second day of the quarantine in Lima, Peru (Daniel Martínez-Quintanilla Pérez).