by Rachana Ingle
A healthier planet?
The Covid 19 pandemic has seen most of the world under lockdown with little human activity outside of people’s households. With less human traffic, the environment has seen some positive changes amid the somber news of the pandemic. Polluting industries have taken a serious hit during this period but with it countries have experienced a visible reduction in pollution with some experiencing clear skies for the first time in years. China has seen a reduction in carbon emissions by 25% in just a four week period in February. Venice has seen clearer and greater flow of water in its lakes from the lack of boat traffic. The fish biomass has even increased. More wildlife have been wandering on roads and even turtles ventured out to lay eggs on the Bengal beach, a place they had avoided in the past years. However, these positive environmental changes may be temporary as they are observed only because of the disruptions caused by the pandemic. These can easily be reversed once the economy is allowed to reopen and cannot be a substitute for a “planned and sustained action on air quality and climate”.
The importance of a clean environment is heightened during the pandemic. Communities need sufficient clean water for hygiene and healthcare facilities.
Additionally, poor air quality can aggravate respiratory illnesses like asthma, making citizens more susceptible to the worse effects of the virus.
A planet still suffering silently
In fact, the climate is still under attack in numerous other ways, and this deterioration is not as prominently reported because of the focus on the pandemic. In Singapore, various environmental efforts have decreased and been postponed, while an estimated 1334 tonnes of extra plastic waste was generated during the two month circuit breaker period. This is due to an understandably increased need for packaging and disposables. Elsewhere, the situation has been more critical: there has been a rise in African poachers; because of a loss of an alternative income, poachers resort to poaching for high value products like ivory. Deforestation has accelerated worldwide with tree cover losses increasing by 77%. Weakened environmental enforcement efforts due to the restrictions placed by the virus has left the Amazon rainforest and its indigenous tribes more vulnerable. While some are driven by a desperation for food and income, others by profit, deforestation in the Amazon has increased at historic rates. The rate at which the environment continues to deteriorate poses a serious threat to humankind. It needs to be addressed despite focus currently being on pandemic recovery.
Green efforts take a backseat
The economic backlash caused by the pandemic is unprecedented and is the worst recession since the Great Depression. Thus, countries are now focusing on reviving economies and generating employment. While several countries acknowledge the climate crisis and plan to incorporate climate policies into their economic revival, green efforts are not a priority for many countries. Bailouts have been given to polluting companies in Germany and the UK and other countries have given handouts without any green conditions. In Singapore the economic taskforce for covid 19 recovery currently does not include any representatives from the renewable energy sector, raising concerns that the government plans to simply restart the old economy. China has restarted and increased its coal power expansion in a bid to boost the economy. China will also continue its “Belt and Road” initiative to build huge, carbon-intensive infrastructure projects across developing countries – that could “lock countries into unsustainable infrastructure, technology, and resource extraction”. The notable absence of green priorities may allow greater leeway to polluting companies. Finally, the postponed 2020 UN climate conference means a missed opportunity to enhance the green promises made in the Paris Agreement without which little can be done to hold countries accountable.
Rachana is an undergraduate student studying social sciences at Sciences Po-HKU. Passionate about the environment and social issues, she seeks to create positive change and encourage sustainability in society.