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The Challenges of COVID 19 will leave us better equipped to deal with Global Warming

COVID 19 is presenting us with ever more complex and profound challenges on an almost daily basis: Boulevards are deserted in Paris, Squares empty in London and rolling news carries an almost unbearable litany of loss. With more than 20% of the world’s population now in lockdown, these are unprecedented times; but what does all this mean for the future of our already beleaguered planet? What do those empty streets and squares mean for the longer-term struggle against global warming?

The latest Sentinel 5P Satellite Data shows radically reduced figures for airborne nitrogen dioxide: the pollutant most commonly associated with burning fossil fuels, and motor vehicle use in particular (most vehicles having been forced off the roads by pandemic restrictions). With an admirable sense of understatement, the Director of the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, Vincent-Henri Peuch, has described this as “useful, because less pollution can only be a good thing when this virus is around.

Who’s going to disagree with that?

And for the first time in history, the price of crude oil has slumped to below zero in some US Markets. Bunkers and storage facilities are already at capacity, so producers have been paying customers up to $40 a barrel to take any new output off their hands, even though this means immediate shipment to another facility (with costs way in excess of $40 a barrel) in the hope of a future spike in prices. So, it may not be the gift horse it seems; particularly bearing in mind continuing energy market uncertainties that make any increase in crude prices far from certain.

On a more upbeat note, Allesandro Miani of the Italian Society of Environmental Medicine believes reported reductions in Nitrogen Oxide levels may actually inhibit the overall spread of the virus: "Particulate matter, when it’s at a certain density and there is a lot of smog, a lot of atmospheric pollution, can be considered a sort of highway for the acceleration of the epidemic." So the recent fall in pollutant levels could well be COVID cul de sac. Let’s hope so…

On the other hand, global CO2 levels are still at an all-time high despite the (as yet) short-term effects of the pandemic lockdown: highlighting a sharp contrast between overall atmospheric conditions and readings in specific, densely populated areas. That’s because localised emissions have a limited impact on the build-up of greenhouse gases generally, resulting as they do from an aggregate accumulation dating back hundreds of years beyond the industrial revolution. Year on year (short term) trends will have little impact on planet-wide conditions of that kind.

But nurtured by the current lockdown restrictions, our common experience will profoundly shape how we respond to the challenges of climate change in the future. No matter how cloistered or hemmed in we might feel now, nobody can have failed to notice the radical reduction in air traffic over recent weeks: 41% lower than this time last year; road traffic volumes in the UK have fallen by 73% in a month (the lowest since 1955), and no one can have failed either to notice the improvement in air quality during those occasional forays from homes stalked by disaffected children, distracted by i-phones and (occasionally) longing for school… 

So let’s make no mistake, things will change when all this is over: one of the more bearable legacies of COVID 19 will be an increased awareness of just how important it is to protect our precious planet from the threat of climate change. So when travel does start up again, when all those planes return to the skies and cars to our roads, we will be better informed, more responsible and perhaps even a little chastened: but on any basis better equipped to build a better future together.

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Executive Overview

Far from going away during the COVID pandemic, climate change policies are now more important than ever. For a few months, we glimpsed the potential reduced carbon emissions have for positive change across the world, and it’s down to us now to grasp that reality and build on it with renewed energy.

Suchit Punnose

Suchit Punnose / About Author

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