Covid & Climate Change – The good, the bad and the ugly

Memes of wild animals roaming free in suburbia and pictures of clear skies where the Himalayas are visible from towns hundreds of miles away, are flooding social media right now. Imagining that the outdoors is beautiful, recovering and thriving at a time when we can’t get to it, is equal parts satisfying and maddening, but what is really happening? Is Covid-19 curing or killing climate change action?

The Good

Less Emissions

With many countries around the world enforcing travel bans and individuals being much more cautious about flying, global air travel has massively declined in recent months. Suvannabumi airport (BKK) has seen a 97% reduction in passengers as of the beginning of April and globally there has been a 95% reduction. And with millions of people self-isolating, working from home or practicing physical distancing, people are driving much less, meaning less traffic, fewer emissions, and cleaner air.

Covid & Climate Change - The good, the bad and the ugly
Grounded Thai Airways Fleet at Suvarnabhumi Airport (Khaosod)

Strict lockdown and many factories temporarily closing across China has meant that the country is emitting 25% less than this time last year. Being one of the world’s biggest producers of ‘stuff’, this is a big figure relative to global emissions.

Opening a Dialogue About Animal Agriculture

The growing awareness around the link between animal agriculture and the spread of disease has arguably been a huge silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic. Due to fears of how the virus may have started, many people are starting to talk about the meat industry and the danger it poses to, both the environment and our health. Although there is not yet definitive confirmation that Covid-19 emerged as a result of animal agriculture or wildlife exploitation, there is strong evidence to suggest that this is in fact the case. 75% of new and infectious diseases, Ebola, Sars, Bird Flu and Mers to name a few (and possibly even HIV), are zoonotic and about 1 billion cases of illness and millions of deaths occur every year from these diseases. Furthermore, the main risk factors in zoonosis emergence as a result of animal agriculture and livestock production, including deforestation to clear land for animal grazing and intensive factory farming. With animal agriculture being the single biggest carbon emitter, bringing more awareness to this subject could become a massive contributor in lowering meat consumption and ultimately slowing down climate breakdown.

Giving Nature Recovery Time

The ocean became clearer, the sea life returned to the bay and the decimated coral began to regrow.

Over the last few months travel bans, beach and hotel closures and tour cancellations have seen once busy tourist destinations become completely deserted. In early March, the full moon parties held on Haad Rin beach on Koh Phangan were suspended until further notice due to Covid-19. These monthly events usually see around 30,000 people visiting each party, causing serious stress and damage to the surrounding environment. This is just one example of what is happening to the world’s most visited tourist destinations. Although this has the potential to be very damaging to local businesses and the economy, this could be the breath of fresh air earth’s paradise and oceans need. We all remember the before and after pictures of Maya Bay (Krabi, Thailand) when it was closed in 2018; the ocean became clearer, the sea life returned to the bay, and the decimated coral began to regrow. This is an opportunity for the ecology of these beautiful places to recover and thrive once again.

Covid & Climate Change - The good, the bad and the ugly
Rare leatherback sea turtles returning to Thailand’s empty beaches (Chiang Rai Times)

Buying Locally

The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing countries, businesses and individuals to start thinking local. Even if Covid-19 hasn’t directly impacted food and product supply everywhere, the very real threat of something like Covid-19 interrupting supply in the future is making many countries and individuals see the importance of producing and buying locally.

Less Pollution & More Health Awareness

Air pollution is linked to a far higher death rate from Covid-19 and is arguably why Northern Italy was hit so badly (one of the most polluted areas in Europe). The news of this risk factor has been spread far and wide and has helped raise awareness of how dangerous air pollution and climate change can be to our health. People are beginning to see that climate change is a very real health risk, not just for future generations. Whether this will lead to more mindfulness when it comes to emissions and climate change in the future is yet to be seen.

The Bad

More Plastic & Waste

Medical and hazardous waste, including PPE for both medical staff and the general public is seeing a massive increase during this time. Although this is vital for health and safety, it is certainly contributing substantially to global plastic pollution. Whilst we’re talking about vital PPE and waste, let’s take a moment to marvel at a new product on the block – finger condoms. Sorry I mean single-use latex ‘finger cots’. The push of these ‘finger cots’ resulting in hundreds of thousands (probably millions) being used once and thrown away, is being marketed as a safer alternative to using your bare fingers to press lift buttons and… no, wait that’s it. Who knew washing your hands was so difficult?

Covid & Climate Change - The good, the bad and the ugly

Single-waste plastic in daily life also seems to be making a comeback. USA’s Greenpeace oceans campaigner says that industry groups have “seen the crisis as an opportunity to exploit people’s fear around Covid-19 to push their pro-pollution agendas.” Whilst this isn’t the case everywhere, misinformation demonising reusable bags and pushing single use plastic bags has meant that many shops, including many 7/11 locations over Thailand, have started offering plastic bags again despite the plastic bag ban agreement at the beginning of 2020. Some states in America have even gone as far as banning reusable bags altogether. And it’s not just plastic bags that are making a comeback; the use of single-use takeaway food containers, cutlery and cups are on the rise. With takeaway being the only option for restaurants and cafes in most of the country, many businesses have no other choice than to use dozens of single-use containers every day in order to keep their businesses afloat. Even big names, like Starbucks, are now refusing personal reusable coffee cups for fears of spreading the virus.

The Ugly

The Environment Isn’t Getting Airtime

Important environmental news like the devastating fires still happening in Chiang Mai are getting little to no news coverage. Whilst the national and international media is swamped with Covid-19 news, Chiang Mai is choking. With lack of coverage and most resources now focused on fighting Covid-19, Chiang Mai villagers are being forced to deal with these catastrophic fires largely by themselves. The air quality in Chiang Mai has been sitting in the ‘hazardous’ category for weeks with the AQI reaching the 400s on some days.

Covid & Climate Change - The good, the bad and the ugly
Bush fire in Chiang Mai (Chiang Mai Volunteer Drone Team)

The dedication of news coverage to Covid-19 has also given governments around the world the chance to rush through legislation and pass bills under the radar. Lawmakers in Indonesia are using the restrictions on social gatherings to pass bills that they were unable to pass last year due to mass street protests. Included in these bills is the ‘mining bill’ that undermines environmental protection and eases restrictions for miners, land developers and commercial fishers.

In the US, the EPA announced that, because of Covid-19, they will be temporarily giving polluters a free pass on the enforcement of pollution rules. This policy will waive the usual requirements for monitoring, testing, sampling and lab analysis of emissions chemicals.

“the health of the people and the health of the planet are one in the same, and both can thrive in equal measure.”

Most of the positives that have come from this pandemic have the potential (and probability) of being very short-lived and having no impact on climate change in the long run. The only real way of positively impacting the environment and slowing climate breakdown is to change our production and consumption habits, and lifestyle choices. We can use this as a learning experience, and practice changing our habits for good; to fly less, buy less, work from home more, use conference calling more and live our lives loving mother earth. It is the care factor and our attitudes towards our planet that are really going to count here. Let’s really make the most of this clean slate that we have been given and use this as an opportunity to, as individuals, create demand for green business and lower demand for polluting business. Support sustainable, plant-based food businesses, use renewable energy when possible, cut your plastic waste, compost when you can, and vote for politicians who advocate for green initiatives and business.

As a society we need to start viewing nature as part of our economy, not just our world. Because “the health of the people and the health of the planet are one in the same, and both can thrive in equal measure.” – UNEP

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