• Alexander Heller

As the public begins to open again, environmentalists hold their breaths

| By Amanda Palma |

Nature may look like it's "healing" amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, but many remain skeptical whether or not policy makers will actively combat future environmental issues

While reports of air pollution are recently positive due to slower-paced lifestyles from COVID-19, the environment still continues to struggle. With personal protective equipment now found on the ground, not only creating a health hazard, but more environmental issues; and Antarctica turning green along with the rapid destruction of the Amazon Rainforest since the beginning of this year, we shouldn’t be celebrating.

The smaller victories are important and noted during this time of a world wide lockdown, but already reports show reversals on environmental improvements as countries are slowly opening again.

According to CBS News, air pollution levels are reverting back to how they were in China as their lockdown restrictions are now lifted. The Finland-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, or CREA, states the Chinese governmental figures confirmed an even greater spike in air pollution “pre-crisis,” according to CBSnews. The study states a fall back of the ozone concentration in comparison to the concentration levels in 2018,

“The rebound appears to be driven by industrial emissions, as the pollution levels in the largest cities, Beijing and Shanghai, are still trailing below last year. More broadly, pollution levels tended to increase more in areas where coal-burning is a larger source of pollution. Ozone levels are close to the record level of 2018.”

China is the first country with a major economy to return back from lockdown. An increase of air pollution was expected in China and is expected all around the world as countries start to reopen.

However, the “rebounding air pollutant levels [recorded from China] are a demonstration of the importance of prioritizing a green economy and clean energy in the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis,” according to the CREA report.

The study also explains an overshoot of pre-crisis air pollution levels is not so obvious, especially with many economies starting to try to catch their balance. The study warns “an overshoot would signify a ‘dirty’ recovery in which the more highly polluting sectors are leading.”

China experienced similar rebounds in the past, and have all reportedly been “dirty.” From the 2003 SARS investment boom, 2008 stimulus package provided for the Olympics and the 2012-13 “airpocalypse,” the region of Beijing has continuously suffered from a surge of air pollution.

According to the CREA report, the lockdowns dramatically impacted China’s use of fossil fuels and air quality, stating on Feb. 3 the national average of PM2.5 Levels dropped by 33% with NO2 levels by 40%, and CO2 emissions by 25%. The use of coal-fired power generation, cement manufacturing and oil consumption all fell during lockdown.

Coal mining and power generating largely and negatively impact the environment. Something the current White House administrations openly supports. However according to the CREA, the reason the current rebound on China’s air pollution levels are considered ‘dirty’ is clear. Since the lockdown, power plants, industry and transport are back on the rise.

The CREA reported percentage increases due to the use of each industrial trade:

"Coal consumption at 5 major power generating companies in eastern China rose above 2019 levels for the first time in early May; thermal power generation already increased 1% in April year-on-year, after falling 8% in March. Cement and metals manufacturing has also been rebounding: already in April, cement output increased 4% year-on-year, after falling 18% in March; non-ferrous metals output increased 4% and steel output returned to growth after falling in March."

What may seem surprising is retail sales remain at 8% below last year’s level in April, and “consumer-facing manufacturing such as textiles and mobile phones recorded double digit falls on year,” according to the study. It’s heavy industries that are taking the lead in a

negative rebound.

According to CBS News, other economic recoveries from China have also tied with past surges of air pollution and CO2 emissions. Ma Jun, founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) explain larger corporations in construction and industry are understandably looking to rebuild the economy by resuming their production, but “the risk it's posing to [the] environment shouldn't be overlooked, and strict supervision is required," Jun told CBS News.

He expressed the urgency for a “green recovery,” but explains it will be challenging because China’s main priority is its economy. CBS News also reported “Jun urged officials not to miss an opportunity, and to "come up with innovative solutions for the long run."

The CREA explains rebounding air pollutant levels are the reason why a green economy and use of clean energy is more important than ever as the world starts to heal from the first wave of COVID-19.

The overall situation simply shows just how much the emissions and economy correlate, according to CBS News. However, shutting down the economy to protect the environment is an unreasonable way to go.

But environmentalists, like Jun and Dr. Rob Jackson, head of the Global Carbon Project and a professor of Earth System Science at Stanford University are concerned the need to rebuild the economy will take precedence over the environment and before finding a way the two systems can collaborate.

“I'm most afraid that the virus will slow or even halt climate action," Jackson said for CBS News. The foundation of his fear comes from the 2008 Great Recession when public concern no longer focused on the environment, but more on the economy. Jackson explains he sees “optimism and pessimism.”

Optimistically, “the virus can change the way we work - telecommuting could become mainstream, which can help reduce emissions and shave hours off commuting," Jackson said for CBS News. He believes the pandemic can create other positive changes, but only if the “government relief is strategic,” as the goals of the Paris Agreement are challenging.

If people are willing to see the environment as an upfront issue rather than a distant risk, “long term the coronavirus pandemic will help combat climate change if stimulus funding boosts green infrastructure and creates jobs in sustainable projects in renewables and electric cars," Jackson said.

However, Jackson also explains that the level of ambition for climate action is unknown as the world starts to bounce back. It’s unknown if the governments will take this opportunity to make changes, and “without proactive measures we are sure to fall short of our climate goals,” he said.

“When faced with an immediate threat, like widespread unemployment, people tend to pay less attention to what they view as a more distant risk, like climate change,” according to CBS News. It’s vital people start to see the environment in the forefront before this becomes a greatly missed opportunity to start from the ground up. Something 2020 continues to slap us in the face with.

For more on this story, contact Amanda Palma @amandapalma_3 on Twitter

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