Will COVID-19 be the magic bullet for the world to start taking climate change seriously?
This is how the air quality case study speaks for itself.
The similarities between response to COVID-19 and climate change are uncanny.
Global emergency. Unusual levels of global collaboration. Requiring urgent and radical action in policy-making. Demanding patience and changes in human behaviour today for the sake of better tomorrow. The need to listen to the scientists, whose advice has been long neglected, as the action would threaten growth. Involves politicisation. Abandoning the logic of the marketplace, and embracing public investment.
To me, these similarities between COVID-19 and climate change response are crystal clear. Yet, it is also clear why the topics differ.
This is a sensitive topic — but please have a listen.
It is a tad clumsy to compare the current, quick-spreading pandemic with the slowly evolving climate change. The novel coronavirus has had major global costs in human lives and social disruption in a very short time. This is, of course, terrible and terrifying. Whereas, climate change impacts human lives and the global economy in a more subtle way (Forum for the Future).
I want to acknowledge that these situations are very different and that I am not trying to make a comparison here. The Breakthrough cleverly phrases that conceptually, COVID-19 presents as a simple problem where quarantine, social distancing, other public health measures and potentially, immunisation, may contain the outbreak. Climate change, on the other hand, is a complex, “wicked” problem, and opinions on its causes, impacts, key actors and ideal responses vary.
However, working with environmental health policy, it is in my utter nature to be curious about public health emergencies — whether they were unfolding rapidly or sneaking in bit by bit. Please know that this is me merely writing down my thoughts and trying to see the silver lining in the pandemic.
1. COVID-19 is already changing our world.
The COVID-19 response has massively changed our world in the short few months of its existence. Businesses have limited and cut down travel completely. Most companies and organisations have adopted and innovated electronic processes. After decades of promises, large organisations are finally operating as paperless offices. People are radically supporting (and relying on) local businesses. Communities have come together to support each other in the most beautiful ways: helping older neighbours with groceries and organising balcony gatherings for entertainment in high-rise urban jungles. Where city streets have emptied, urban wildlife has amplified: from foxes and goats taking over central towns to lively musical shows performed by the local bird habitat. It is undeniable that the pandemic has already changed our world, and our cities.
In the post-COVID-19 climate, many of these newly learned habits offer an opportunity for adopting new ways of living.
Will the world leaders, governments, large organisations and cities recognise some of these new patterns, and incorporate them into business as usual? — I certainly hope so.
2. Carless cities: pollution-less cities.
The empty streets paint an eerie picture to the normally traffic-driven cities. Although nobody wanted the pandemic to escalate to its current state, especially not at the cost of the most vulnerable people, it would be irresponsible to not look at the bright side of the situation. In some aspects, the pandemic has a silver lining for urban living — that is in terms of air quality. And, the case study on air quality speaks for itself.
What are the health risks of air pollution?
Climate change scientists, environmentalists, advocates and public health professionals have spent years trying to convince the public and decision-makers of the harms of air pollutants in cities — and for good reasons. The World Health Organization estimates that internationally air pollution kills around seven million people per year. In New Zealand alone, the estimated number of annual deaths caused by air pollution was 1,227 in 2016 (27.2 per 100,000 people — for context, COVID-related mortality in New Zealand is around 0.3%).
The science shows that exposure to air pollutants, such as particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxide (NO2), can have serious human health impacts.
Particulate matter (PM)
PM consists of small airborne particles that are invisible to the human eye but can be inhaled into our lungs. (PM10 refers to particles smaller than 10micrometers in diameter, and PM2.5 refers to fine particles with a diameter smaller than 2.5micrometers). According to Environmental Health Indicators New Zealand, PM-related health effects vary from respiratory irritation to heart problems, lung cancer and premature deaths. People with pre-existing health conditions (e.g. asthma), younger children and older people are at a risk-group of experiencing the effects (which is not too far off from the COVID-risk group).
Nitrogen oxide (NO2)
NO2 is another air pollutant, a reddish-brown gas with a strong smell. With the same risk group, NO2 exposures are associated with increased risk for hospital admissions for respiratory conditions. “The main source for human-made NO2 is the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, especially in motor vehicles”. Vehicle exhausts and industries are the primary cause of air pollution in cities.
However, the scientific and environmentalist community has been unable to show an existing case study of how the air quality of cities would improve if traffic was critically lessened, simply because this has never happened before.
At the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns, the world has gained at least one positive side effect: a live case study for healthier cities without pollution.
3. The ‘Clean Cities’ Case Studies
#1 Auckland, New Zealand
Auckland, the most populous capital in New Zealand, saw a radical improvement in its air quality already during the first week of the country’s lockdown in late March. Its NO2 levels dropped measurably, particularly in the suburban regions, NZ Herald reports.
#2 Delhi, India
On a global scale, the changes have been even more distinctive. The Air Quality Index (AQI) is used by governments to monitor and communicate the current state of air quality to the public. On a good day, the world’s most polluted city, Delhi, reaches a critical 200 on the AQI level. During last year’s pollution periods, there were days with 900. To give these numbers some context: the World Health Organization considers anything beyond 25 unsafe. As Delhi’s 11 million cars are sitting parked, some factories have shut their doors and construction is halted, the AQI levels have occasionally dropped as low as below 20, addresses The Guardian.
#3 Many other megacities
No more, megacities like Bangkok, São Paulo and Bogotá have all reported unheard-of clean air quality. For memorable before and after photos of some of these megacities, see this Guardian article.
It is obvious that when countries go to quarantine and lockdown and their main polluters, traffic and industry, stop, their air quality improves.
Ironically, as many cities finally enjoy the best air quality they’ve ever had, people are not allowed to be outside to enjoy it.
#4 Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Guangzhou
In February, NASA published a stunning satellite image of reducing NO2 levels over Chinese cities during its bold COVID-19 response.
An academic Marshall Burke took an unusual approach with looking at these statistics. Given the extensive amount of data that dirty air is harmful to human health, he ran some calculations pondering, what if COVID-19 reduces economic activity, which reduces pollution, which saves lives? The Guardian explains Burke’s calculations in plain English. “In China alone, emission reductions since the start of the pandemic had in effect saved the lives of at least 1,400 children under five and 51,700 adults over 70”. The Forbes has also brought up similar, controversial viewpoints: coronavirus lockdown may save more lives by preventing pollution than by preventing infection.
Please note that Burke keeps highlighting that in these calculations, he is putting aside all the hardship of the pandemic, and is by no means suggesting it is good for health. I fully agree. However, I also wonder:
What is stopping us from working towards better public health, cleaner air, and healthier cities as we come out of the lockdown, and the pandemic as a whole?
4. Potential of planning policy — post-pandemic.
Urban planning and design are one of the key tools for tackling climate change. By setting rules, regulations and policies and spatially designing for healthy cities, the field can aim to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
One of the great potentials of sustainable and healthy urban planning is tackling air quality. The roadmap for cleaner air is straightforward: less pollution, more carbon sinks. Less pollution can mean limiting factory emissions in places where there are lots of people, but also limiting polluting traffic. Carbon sinks can be anything from adding trees, encouraging public transport, encouraging active transport, and updating car fleets to electronic, to building more energy-efficiently and building more compact.
An urban mobility consultant, Daniel Guth, reminds that “We should use this as a moment to reflect on what transport methods we should prioritise when this crisis is over”. Rightly so: like the air quality case studies around the world show, transport has an enormous impact on cities’ air quality.
5. Post-pandemic: the fear of not adapting.
Even though changes in urban air quality speak for itself across the globe, many city planners, designers, scientist, environmentalists and other sustainability advocates fear that after the coronavirus crisis has been defeated, it is easy to fall back into the business-as-usual.
There is no doubt that factories will soon be operating and cars driving the currently empty city streets, potentially worsening the air quality back to what was before in a matter of days. Some worry that there may be a drop in the use of public transportation, as people are afraid of the proximity of strangers. Others are concerned that the situation will be even worse than at square one: as industry and people try to cover for the lost productivity.
A sad but very real visualisation of this fear is the Trump administration allowing companies to break pollution laws penalty-free during the pandemic. Similarly, China has already seen some increased productivity as it is preparing to leave the lockdown. In January, its pollution levels were down by 25% across the country. However, from March onwards NO2 has begun its rise again, as traffic, business, factories and power plants return their operations.
We can’t go back to normal!
What alternatives do we have?
One of the positives I’m taking from the pandemic is that before we urgently needed to take action, many ways of working were thought to be impossible. These include our new norms that didn’t even take that much effort: working from home, reducing travel, having online meetings and paperless office.
Like Victoria Crawford points out, none of these adjustment required new technologies, but a cultural shift, and a new way of thinking.
If anything, the past weeks and months have exemplified that governments do hold power for demanding rapid change, especially under a pressure of being considered as illegitimate. Whereas in the past, we’ve heard reasons from a-z on why governments are unable to take extensive interventions on certain politicised topics. It is now clear that business-as-usual solutions would not have been enough for this pandemic. And, they will not be enough for other globally shared problems (read: air quality).
Instead of fighting the virus to go back to ‘normal’, our responsibility is fighting the virus to go back to a world where business-as-usual is “something more humane and secure”. A Guardian interviewee Margaret Klein Salamon, a former psychologist who now heads the advocacy group The Climate Mobilization, reminds that the power of shared emotion is one of the key lessons we can take from the pandemic. “I’m not talking about people giving each other medical expertise. I’m talking about people calling each other up and saying: ‘How are you doing? Are you scared? I’m scared. I want you to be OK, I want us to be OK.’”, she exemplifies.
What if we could address the global environmental emergencies that are creeping on us slower with a similar openness? What if we could all share emotion around the environmental state of our cities, and our climate?
…Please, we can’t go back to normal.
The sceptics’ response.
Quite a few people have expressed their doubts on whether anything will change, however. The Breakthrough views that perhaps the lockdown will make us crave for the forbidden fruits even more, like flying and dining out. It is also concerned with the potential of an eco-fascist agenda, in light of xenophobia and limiting global movements.
Without getting to this debate with any more detail, admittedly, the difficulty is that comparing COVID-19 measures for those that could be taken for climate change action or for enhancing air quality, are hardly media-sexy. Instead, rhetoric endorsing restrictions on movements, individual sacrifices and close-up government surveillance sound wildly unpopular.
However, I see that with the right attitude and attention to detail (the ability to understand differences between situations), anything, even baking a bread loaf during the lockdown, can become a philosophical metaphor for drawing lessons from. Perhaps I’m a tad naive, but I refuse to take the pessimist approach that no political progression will come out of this pandemic. Like the author Philip Mirowski wrote, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste.
6. Other ways of living.
Some individuals bring glimpses of hope. Burke hopes that the academic community would start thinking about conference-travel more critically, as it is by far the most polluting part of the industry. Hopefully, many businesses would do that too. After all, travelling for work is only fun for so long, and as our rapid change to online meetings has shown, so much of it is avoidable.
Jan Gehl raises his concerns and future hopes in The Urbanist podcast. At the top of this list is reconsidering mass-tourism.
“Really, the world needs to address the mass-tourism: because it ruins places and it ruins cultures and it ruins the diversity on this earth, and also it is not at all good for the climate.”
Hopefully, in the post-pandemic world, we are not too fast to “reinvent the old bad habits”, but will do some rethinking in terms of culture and the climate.
Yet what happens remains to be seen. Can the optimists transfer the glimpses of hope and “moments of solidarity into the broader political sphere”? Will the big players, governments, large corporations and cities, have a listen?
The sincerely global nature of COVID-19 has forced the world to realise something else, “We are all in this together”. Crawford gives an example: “China sending help to Italy represents more than just shifts in the geopolitical landscape; it also shows an overcoming of the sense of “other,” and an acknowledgement that events in one part of the world can affect us all”. In this, every little step counts.
Somewhere in the world, things are already happening.
Much later than I started writing this piece, Milan announced that post-lockdown, it will transform 35km or roads into bicycle networks, in the attempts of maintaining the 30–75% cleaner air quality the city has gained during the government’s drastic measures.
In urban planning, improving active transport infrastructure is a promising tool for enhancing air quality and the general health and wellbeing in cities. I hope to see more similar actions as we move forward.
At least somewhere, the political will is there, and positive changes are already happening.