The Straits Times says

A silver lining for the environment

As the world grapples with the sickness and death brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, people are seeing pockets of brightness. Confined to their homes during the lockdown that brought their city to a standstill, the denizens of Wuhan noticed that the sky had turned clear and blue instead of being thick with smog. They could hear birds sing without the incessant noise of traffic. Halfway across the world in the Italian city of Venice, also under a shutdown to contain the virus, the usually murky waters of the fabled canals turned a clear blue-green. Readings from a European Space Agency satellite showed that the levels of nitrogen dioxide - produced by car engines, power plants and industrial processes - over cities and industrial areas in Asia and Europe were significantly lower than for the same period last year. A pollution expert remarked this could be the future if the world moved to a low-carbon economy.

However, this drop in emissions is likely temporary. When the pandemic dies down and economic and social activity cranks up again, as factories reopen, cars go back on the roads and people start to travel, the carbon emissions will spike. Another worry then is that as the world enters a recession, governments are likely to put issues of pollution and climate change on the back burner as they prioritise getting their economies going again. Already there are reports that China - the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide - is considering relaxing car pollution rules. The Czech Republic, which depends largely on nuclear energy and coal, recently asked the European Union to abandon its green law that focuses on carbon neutrality. Many meetings ahead of the Glasgow climate change summit in November, where countries were to negotiate their pledges on reducing emissions, have been cancelled or shelved.

Still, there are lessons from the pandemic and lifestyle changes forced by the need for social distancing that could yet help countries tackle climate change. Noting that Covid-19 was climate change on warp speed, one expert said politicians must apply what they have learnt from tackling the pandemic to climate, including implementing policies that push everyone to take heed of the costs their actions imposed on others, whether they be disease exposure or carbon emissions. Another lesson is the need to act quickly and strongly before the waves turn into a tsunami. And then there are the new ways of doing things which, if continued after the pandemic, will cut our carbon footprint. These are working from home and online conferencing that reduce travel, shortening supply chains as firms source material nearer markets, vacationing closer to home, buying and consuming less and so on. If governments and individuals could do these things to reduce global warming, that would be one good outcome of this horrific global pandemic crisis.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2020, with the headline 'A silver lining for the environment'. Print Edition | Subscribe