Coronavirus crisis helps clear the air on climate and pollution

Impact underscores the importance of shifting from fossil fuels. But will devastated economies stay the course on Paris accord commitments?

Beyond the awful numbers on deaths and economic damage, there's another impact from the pandemic that can be seen from space: A big drop in air pollution.

Escalating lockdowns are causing local air pollution to improve and cutting greenhouse gas emissions as well. The drop in air pollution could well save lives and it also buys the planet a little bit more time in fighting the climate emergency.

It's a side benefit that has revealed in stark terms the polluting nature of fossil fuel-driven economies and what a cleaner and greener future might be like. But it shouldn't take a pandemic to remind us of this.

During February, Nasa and European Space Agency pollution monitoring satellites detected significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China. The noxious gas is emitted by motor vehicles, power plants and industrial facilities and is a measure of industrial activity.

The drop in NO2 pollution was first apparent near Wuhan, but soon spread across the country.

"This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event," Dr Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Centre, said in a recent note on Nasa's website.

China's Xinhua news agency reported last Saturday that air quality improved during the January to February period in more than 330 cities monitored by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment. The average PM2.5 density, a key indicator of air pollution, also decreased by 13.1 per cent from a year ago during the two-month period.

Depending on how long major economies are idled, improved air quality could save a lot of lives.

"A side benefit is that tens of thousands of deaths from air pollution will be avoided and it does illustrate how casually we overlook the health impacts of air pollution," said Mr Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst for the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

A study published this month said air pollution caused an estimated 8.8 million deaths globally - more than the World Health Organisation's estimate of 7.2 million who died from smoking in 2015.


The lockdown in parts of China led to a drop in overall industrial activity, plus a fall in electricity generation and air travel. China is the world's top coal producer and consumer - it has half the world's fleet of coal-fired power stations. Any significant decline in coal-fired power generation will improve local air pollution and cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, too; CO2 is the main greenhouse gas blamed for heating up the planet.

The slowdown took out the equivalent of almost 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 in China, according to a March 11 report by Bloomberg Intelligence. That's more than the total annual CO2 emissions of Japan, the world's No. 3 economy.

In northern Italy, the epicentre of the country's coronavirus outbreak, NO2 pollution also dropped along with power generation demand, helping to clear the skies there. The same is likely to be repeated across much of Europe and parts of the United States and elsewhere as the pandemic spreads.

Overall, analysts expect a significant drop in CO2 emissions this year but whether it's just a temporary blip as economies race to recover or leads to lasting economic and lifestyle changes remains to be seen.

Already, China is rushing to get its economy back on track and emissions of NO2 and CO2 have started to rise again. The concerns are that China - by far the world's top greenhouse gas emitter - is already showing willingness to ease environmental restrictions to ramp up economic activity, such as lowering pollution standards for vehicles and approving new coal-fired power stations when no more are needed because of overcapacity.

Yet, China faces severe economic headwinds from muted domestic consumption demand, a weakening real estate sector and falling demand for its exports. So the recovery might be slower than expected.


"Based on new projections for economic growth in 2020, we suggest the impact of the coronavirus might significantly curb global emissions," said Dr Glen Peters, research director at the Centre for International Climate and Environment Research in Oslo.

"Emissions declines in response to past economic crises suggest a rapid recovery of emissions when the pandemic is over," he wrote on The Conversion website, citing the rapid recovery after the global financial crisis, which also prompted big stimulus packages, leading to a 5.1 per cent rebound in global emissions in 2010, well above the long-term average.

"But prudent spending of economic stimulus measures, and a permanent adoption of new work behaviours, could influence how emissions evolve in future," Dr Peters said.

Analysts are united on the pandemic forever changing the global economy. But whether it's for the better or worse remains unclear.

For some, the financial market meltdown and collapse in the price of oil could well lead to a radical shift away from fossil fuel investments - already deemed high-risk by insurers, pension funds and other big investors because of their links to driving climate change.

"Clearly the stock market is telling us this is unprecedented and we don't want to be blase about it. We don't want to think it's going to be a temporary blip and then all back to normal in three months. It won't be. The financial market assessment is that the fallout of the dramatic oil and LNG (liquefied natural gas) price collapse is going to be severe and there are going to be a lot of bankruptcies," said energy specialist Tim Buckley in Sydney.

"I think this is going to have a positive benefit to perspectives on the climate emergency," added Mr Buckley, director of energy finance studies, Australia/South Asia, at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

That's because renewable energy investments now look even more appealing after years of steep drops in technology costs. With very low operating costs, banks cutting interest rates globally makes renewables even cheaper. Added to this are growing concerns over fossil fuel pollution and energy security. The result could mean green energy attracting more interest, he said.

Plus, the deep drop in the value of fossil fuel companies and worries over their long-term value mean cash-strapped bankers will increasingly question the future of new coal mining and coal power generation, as well as exploration for high-cost oil and gas developments.

"It could well bring forward the inevitable structural change that technology is driving anyway. It's transform or perish," Mr Buckley told The Straits Times.

It's a view echoed by Mr Kingsmill Bond, an energy strategist at Carbon Tracker, a London-based not-for-profit think-tank.

"There will be a fight over long-term strategy. The brown (fossil fuel) economy will want propping up so we can return to business as usual," he said in an e-mail to The Straits Times.

"But business as usual has failed, and the virus is one symptom of that. We need new approaches. The long-term strategy should now be to build a green economy. Indeed, this is exactly the moment to seize the initiative."


Others are less positive and feel the pandemic could set back national efforts to adopt deeper emissions cuts under the Paris Climate Agreement.

This year is critical for the agreement, with all nations obliged to offer stronger climate action plans, called nationally determined contributions (NDCs). But there are fears the pandemic could stall this and derail a major UN climate meeting scheduled for November.

"There is absolutely no doubt that when money dries up, climate change suffers," said Dr Pep Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Project, which closely monitors fossil fuel emission trends.

"The overall effect is likely to be negative and further hinder the success to achieve the NDCs," he told The Straits Times.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently reminded the world that we're far off course in the fight against climate change.

"Climate change is the defining challenge of our time. We are currently way off track to meeting either the 1.5 deg C or 2 deg C targets that the Paris agreement calls for," he said early this month.

Last year, global CO2 emissions reached another record and 2019 ended with a global average temperature of 1.1 deg C above pre-industrial levels. This is the decade, the UN says, when carbon emissions have to fall sharply to have any chance of limiting warming to 1.5 deg C.

Ms Laurence Tubiana, an architect of the Paris Agreement, also warned against the temptation to shy away from deep carbon cuts.

"In a way, it's a lesson: viruses don't respect borders, climate change doesn't respect borders," Ms Tubiana, who now heads the European Climate Foundation, told a recent online briefing. "If we do not manage the climate crisis, it will be the same."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus crisis helps clear the air on climate and pollution. Subscribe