WED 8 - 7 - 2020
May 29, 2020
The Daily Star
Does corona really benefit the environment?
I did not agree with my friend, who is a renowned energy expert, that the environment was the only beneficiary of the coronavirus pandemic. On one hand, it is still too early to judge the full scale of implications, and on the other hand, the massive loss of human life in a deadly pandemic cannot be a cause of contentment, even if it gives nature a temporary break. The ultimate goal is for people to live a healthy life in a healthy environment, and there is no sense in a soundless nature devoid of human soul. Ultimately, sustaining human life and protecting the environment both require a healthy economy.
It is true that the decline in economic and social activity led to a drastic drop in emissions, with transportation and manufacturing almost coming to a standstill. This was accompanied by diminished pressure on beaches, forests and other natural leisure destinations, due to quarantine and curfew measures. The demand for natural resources decreased as a result of the economic depression, leading to a historical fall in oil prices. These, however, are all temporary reactions to exceptional circumstances, and will not achieve far-reaching results unless appropriate measures are adopted to stimulate a sensible economy, which secures a balance between human needs and the sustainability of resources.
However, the impact of coronavirus on the environment goes beyond the news about a short respite for nature, translated in a transitory decrease in emissions, besides romantic catchphrases such as the return of singing birds to cities. The other side of the story reveals increase in the volume of noxious medical waste in an unprecedented manner, decline in the collection and treatment of household waste in many cities, increase in plastic waste and a decrease in the use of reusable tools due to fear of contamination. This has been accompanied with a significant increase in the consumption of single-use items, especially in the food, sanitation and hygiene industries.
Nobody should entertain the misconception that an economic meltdown benefits the environment. The deeper the crash, the greater the risk of complications in future recovery measures, which may ignore environmental considerations on the pretext of meeting urgent growth needs. Indeed, some countries have already started using corona scare as an excuse for lax enforcement of environmental protection laws, announcing plans to forego environmental standards on the pretext of accelerating recovery and compensating for lost economic growth rates.
If we are to learn from the past, we should remember that during the economic collapse that rocked the world in 2008-2009, carbon dioxide emissions dropped to record levels, before rapidly surging in 2010, as a result of the hurried industrial growth that followed the recession. We can expect the same scenario to repeat itself, unless there is a radical change in old habits.
What we are going through today is certainly an existential risk, entirely different from what happened in 2008, which in turn necessitates another type of approach. The economic collapse at that time was the result of a downfall in financial markets, whereas now it is caused by a pandemic that represents an existential danger to humans, who are the main driver of a productive economy. If the financial measures are sufficient to stimulate economic growth out of a recession caused by purely financial reasons, they are certainly not adequate to solve an economic collapse caused by a pandemic that has gone out of control and hindered production.
Climate and the environment might not be high on the agenda right now. The priority is to develop an effective vaccine and a drug to tackle the deadly virus, and to get people out of economic collapse. However, any long-term solution must take into account all environmental, social and health considerations, in addition to the economic challenge. It has been scientifically proved that deforestation, illegal wildlife trade and the expansion of cities into agricultural lands increase the emergence and spread of epidemics especially that most have animal origin. Climate change is also causing infectious diseases to spread farther than their previously known territories. Therefore, traditional economic remedies confined to raising growth rates are not sufficient in this case, as the intertwinement of health and the environment requires a profound systematic shift to a more sustainable economy, which exceeds numbers to the quality of life itself.
Climate change is the greatest challenge facing humanity, and confronting it is indispensable for recovery. Coming out of the post-corona economic downturn certainly requires pumping money to increase growth and create jobs. However, it is not permissible to borrow trillions from future generations to finance economic programs that eliminate the ingredients of life in the future. Accordingly, finance should go toward energy efficiency, renewable energy, cleaner production methods, scientific research, efficient agriculture, which result in the kind of development that’s in harmony with nature, not against it. This approach can help revive the economy and create more jobs, while preserving the natural capital.
It is early to see whether some of the personal and social habits that coronavirus enforced will leave their mark on the environment in the long run. Will people discover a new way of life that leads to permanent changes, such as reducing food waste, working two days a week from home, holding online meetings instead of using transportation, and spending more holidays in their respective countries and nearby geographical region, instead of traveling thousands of miles by plane? All these contribute to the efforts of reviving the economy through sustainable activities.
Environmental degradation is not a destiny after all.
Najib Saab is secretary-general of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine (www.afedmag.com).
The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy
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