A Price To Pay: Environment and The Fight Against COVID

In just a few short months, the coronavirus pandemic has brought the world to its knees. Millions of people find themselves in the throes of a deadly sickness, devastated by large scale unemployment and debilitated by a fear of the unknown in such fickle times. Inversely, in the midst of a bleak situation, things for the environment are finally looking up. With human and industrial activity coming to a sudden standstill due to nationwide lockdowns and other public restrictions worldwide, air pollution rates have dropped to pre-industrial levels. Signs of the planet healing itself are all around us. Rivers like the Ganga and Yamuna are getting visibly cleaner, the omnipresent hole in the ozone layer is mending and with hunting and extraction operations suspended, many animal species are reclaiming their habitats. Even before the epidemic, concerns about climate change and other environmental issues had been steadily gaining momentum.


By 2019 the term ‘climate emergency’ had come into the mainstream public domain. The work of activists like Greta Thunberg and organisations like Green Peace along with added pressure from the public led to the successful framing and implementation of many eco-friendly policies. And as a testament to positive change, UK’s carbon emissions fell by 38% since 1990 because of their continued efforts to switch from coal power to cleaner sources of energy. Unfortunately the ecological tranquillity we see today could just die out as a temporary side effect, the calm before a terrible storm. Given the urgency of the tailing economic crisis and all eyes now fixed on the rapidly spreading disease, governments find themselves conveniently slackening previously placed environmental provisions. Even worse, the result of incessant lobbying of big polluter corporations has manifested in million dollar bailouts, stimulus packages and many other subsidies to their names. Let us look at some of the most distressing anti-environment actions taken largely unnoticed in the last six months.


At the top of the list of environmental offenders is the United States. In addition to being the country emitting the highest no. of carbon dioxide and other green house gases (about 32 billion metric tons every year), it is also the one country that refuses to abide by most international environmental conventions. It withdrew from the Paris Agreement, a key UN provision with 197 signatory countries on the regulation of global temperature standards, in 2017. It has, since then, been transparent in its complete lack of consideration for the environment during policy making. On May 13th, the same day a national emergency was declared on account of the coronavirus, the Environmental Protection Agency or EPA issued an enforcement discretion policy. Mapping out the policy in a statement, it said that, it “does not seek penalties for non compliance with routine monitoring and reporting obligations that are the result of the COVID-19 pandemic”, further relinquishing its already soft hold on regulated factories, power plants and industries. This policy was passed after the American Petroleum Association lobbied for relaxations of environmental controls that could hinder the production process. Such facilities now hold a free pass, with which they can release noxious polluting gases, untreated toxins and chemicals into the air and water bodies, unbridled, as their aggressive industrial strategies demand. The agency added that any plant or facility can qualify for such lapses as long as they prove that their non-compliance is in “some way” related to the novel coronavirus.


The EPA under the Trump administration along with the department of transportation has also been working to banish Obama-era fuel efficiency standards that restricted tailpipe emissions from vehicles, mandated fuel economy in automobiles and also pushed for the development of electric solar and hybrid cars. Without such standards in place, vehicles in America could potentially release about a billion more tons of carbon dioxide and consume about 80 billion gallons of gasoline over their lifetime. In the past few months, the US lifted the ban on single use plastics, criminalised fossil fuel protests in the states of West Virginia, South Dakota and Kentucky and also plans to drill enough to fill its petroleum reserves to maximum capacity. It gave out millions of dollars in bailouts to the fossil fuel industry, the plastic industry, the petrochemical and the aviation industry, all the while failing to allocate any part of the 2 trillion stimulus package to green projects such as solar and wind energy claiming that “climate change isn’t an immediate threat to humanity”. Even during times when people’s livelihoods, health and survival depends on government funds, the current American administration instead seems bent on pampering its gigantic polluter industries. This insistence, made in the interest of “public health and safety” will come at an even greater cost for humanity as sea levels and global temperatures continue to rise and fatal respiratory and skin diseases result in the deaths of millions more.

The rest of the world isn’t far behind either.


As the place of origin and once-epicentre of the coronavirus, China has been taking active measures to make up for its severe incapacitation. In the 2008 financial crisis, China relied heavily on its coal and nuclear power investments to cope with the economic slowdown, setting in motion the worst pollution in Chinese history. Its response today seems to be no different. Since the lift of the lockdown on April 1, five new coal plants were opened in different provinces of China. These plants are set to produce close to 7,960 MW of energy between 1 – 18th May. This is more than the approved amount of 6,310 MW for the entire year of 2019. China is also deliberating loosening vehicular tailpipe emissions controls for its automobile industries. The most distressing consequence of these actions is their replicative tendency.


Countries like Australia suspended exploration and licensing fees for mining, gas and oil sectors. Australian coal and oil plants now plan to run at full throttle, undertaking expensive pipeline construction and extraction projects. This comes mere months after climate-change related wildfires devastated large parts of the continent. South Korea credited about $825 million to the coal manufacturing giant Doosan Heavy Industries and Construction Co. The decision runs directly contradicting their green initiative and a net zero emissions goal. And as the coronavirus escalated to Pandemic status, even the strongest advocates of sustainable development seemed to buckle under pressure. The UK postponed its ban on single use plastics and also backtracked on several of its anti-coal provisions. In Canada, a ministerial order suspended environmental reporting until mid August.


In light of these desperate, unprecedented times, it is understandable that governments find the most convenient, digestible solutions, ones that would benefit the largest parts of the population most quickly. As of this date, however, the rate of spread of the disease is slowing in countries like America and the UK. Even then, most of the amendments made to eco-friendly provisions come without any explicitly stated termination date. This includes the now postponed climate talks or CPO26. The talks, set to be hosted by the EU, were meant to take bold steps in the realm of environmental protection this April. With certain provisions, the CPO26 would have made climate control measures laid down in the Paris Agreement a legal obligation. It has now been postponed with all other green agendas pushed to the bottom of the list. No further discussions about renewal have been had. With flatter curves, these administrations must re-adjust priorities and with relaxations of environmental conventions, must also vow to switch back, regain momentum as soon as possible.


The ill effects of the on-going health crisis only puts into perspective the necessity of continuing the fight for a clean and safe future. Especially when we think about how climate change kills 4 million people across the wold, every year. We stand today at the threshold of change, dangerously nearing a point of no return. Where we go from here will determine the fate of mankind. A Harvard study shows that people living in areas of high pollution are 84% more likely to succumb to the novel Coronavirus. Everything ranging from the fatality of diseases to natural disasters exponentially increases in magnitude as environmental conditions continue to deteriorate. The pandemic comes as a dire warning, giving us a chance to take a step back and introspect. In times like these it is imperative to not lose sight of the final goal. As the crisis brings the world together, we must unite to conserve our planet, push for sustainable development and admonish irreversible, counter-productive actions of our policy-makers. “This disease is a message from nature that everything is out of balance,” says Nemonte Nenquimo, leader of the Waoroni tribe of the Amazon forests, “but I don’t know if the world is listening.”


References

  1. Polluter bailouts and lobbying during Covid-19 pandemic; The Guardian

  2. EPA Announces Enforcement Discretion Policy for COVID-19 Pandemic; United Nations Environmental Protection Agency

  3. The Trump Administration is Reversing 100 Environmental Rules. Here’s the Full List; The New York Times

  4. Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Major Fossil Fuel Projects; Global Energy Monitor Wiki

  5. COVID-19 PM 2.5- A national study on long-term exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States; Harvard Study

Featured Image: WIX Image Library

By Treesha Lall (lalltrisha@gmail.com)