By Cyndee Miller
In a matter of mere months, the coronavirus has changed everything. At this point, I can barely remember what pre-pandemic life was like—or what day it is.
Oh wait, it’s Earth Day. And COVID-19 has transformed that, too. Something weird—and good—is happening.
In locked-down India, home to 21 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities, the air in Delhi is cleaner than it has been in decades, and Indians can once again glimpse the Himalayas. The European Space Agency last week released satellite images showing how Venice, Italy’s famed canals have been virtually emptied of boat traffic, leaving clear blue waters and visible marine life. At Yosemite National Park, now quiet and tourist-free, the bear population has quadrupled. From the U.S. to Thailand, sea turtles are thriving in the absence of humans at closed beaches.
And in China, industrial inactivity led to a drop in CO2 emissions by a whopping 100 million metric tons in February. With the coronavirus outbreak bringing economies to a screeching halt, carbon dioxide emissions could fall by more than 5 percent this year—the largest global decrease since World War II, according to Rob Jackson, chair of the Global Carbon Project and a professor at Stanford University.
But is this environmental progress built to last? Or will it fade away as the world economy begins to rebuild?
After world greenhouse gas emissions dipped alongside the 2008 global financial crisis, they shot back up 5.1 percent amid the recovery, Mr. Jackson told Reuters. The rebound effect is already playing out in China: By the end of March, coal consumption and nitrogen dioxide pollution had returned to normal levels.
Without a strategy for enduring structural change, any environmental improvements in the age of COVID-19 will likely be short-lived. I get that the fight against climate change probably isn’t top of mind right now. But that’s the real danger—that the issue moves to the back burner and we blindly return to business as usual when there is clearly so much work to be done. The United Nations in November called for a 7.6 percent emissions reduction every year between now and 2030 to give the world a viable chance of achieving the goal of the Paris Agreement and limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The coronavirus-induced shutdown has shown the world what climate action can look like in hyper-focus. But it will be just a fleeting moment without a real commitment to strong and sustainable change carried out by project leaders. One prime example: A project in Milan, Italy aims to reallocate street space from cars to cycling and walking. Under the nationwide lockdown, traffic congestion—and air pollution—saw a dramatic drop. And now government leaders want to keep it that way.
It’s up to forward-looking leaders to use this moment to fund projects that foster environmental action and economic growth.
An aggressive move to renewables could power a post-pandemic recovery with a US$98 trillion boost to the GDP between now and 2050, per a new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency. The investment in renewables would also almost quadruple renewable energy jobs to 42 million, while simultaneously tackling climate change.
“Stimulus and recovery packages can also accelerate the shift to sustainable, decarbonized economies and resilient inclusive societies,” Francesco La Camera, the group’s director-general said in a statement. “As the current crisis makes clear, we can no longer afford to make policy decisions and investments in isolation amid elaborately intertwined social, economic and environmental challenges.”
The battle to conquer COVID-19 is a powerful testament to the strength of global collaboration. And on this Earth Day especially, it’s worth giving some thought to how project leaders can help the world recover and rebuild a more sustainable future. Are you ready?