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Urgently needed: A COVID-like response to fight climate change

Improvements in greenhouse gas levels and air pollution may have a short lifespan unless governments walk the talk on sustainable development

May 21, 2020 / 03:12 PM IST
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Chandreyee Namhata and Badri Narayanan Gopalakrishnan

Once the severity of COVID-19 hit the nations, we saw the magnitude of extreme measures such as putting millions of people in lockdown, social distancing and generous financial packages to help prevent a looming recession and help flatten the curve – all in an effort to limit the impact of the virus.

COVID-19 and global climate change are rooted in our failure to separate the cost of human life from profit. Despite that, there is a stark difference between how the governments have responded to both these crises. While it is true that these restrictions are temporary, it shows that governments across the world are fiercely capable of taking radical action if they want to and the reality is radical actions are also needed to prevent anthropogenic climate change.

The ongoing curbs on movement of people are a disruptor to economic activity and have significant impact on lowering global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and pollutants. For instance, China under the lockdown witnessed a reduction of CO2 emissions by at least 25 percent and nitrogen dioxide by 37 percent. Reduction in air pollution is also being observed in other parts of the world, and this trend is likely to continue as lockdowns extend. In comparison to emission levels, pollution in New York has reduced by nearly 50 percent because of the COVID-19 response. The aviation industry contributing 2.6 percent of global GHG emissions, along with the transport sector, has come to a grinding halt and may take a long time to recover, which may continue to lower emissions.

Unfortunately, improvements in GHG levels and air pollution possibly have a short lifespan unless governments engage in long-term planning and decisive commitment to sustainable development once COVID-19 is over and the world restarts, according to a recent United Nations report. If one goes by historical accounts to understand how the emissions may rebound, the global financial crisis of 2008-09 saw an economic slowdown on account of which there was a 1.2 percent drop in global GHG emissions. However, generous stimulus packages received from governments led to a 5.1 percent rebound in global emissions in 2010, which was well above the long-term average. Based on our modeling of economy-wide effects globally, using a widely used trade economic model (GTAP), such a drop may be in the range of 1-3 percent in emissions this time as well.

COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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Several factors contribute to the well-founded cynicism that improvements in GHG emissions are short-lived. First, there is a significant risk that political capital and financial resources will be diverted to mitigating the coronavirus disaster, thereby, weakening countries’ resolve to implement their Nationally Determined Contributions to achieving their climate targets.

Second, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned that COVID-19 will weaken investments in clean energy and industrial activity adjusted to reduce emissions unless policymakers use their massive economic stimulus plans to support the low-carbon transition.

Third, while the drop in oil demand caused by a steep reduction in air travel due to the virus and the Saudi-Russia oil price war has also contributed to lower levels of GHG emissions, its current low prices raise doubts about the future of clean energy technology deployment and climate action. Concurrently, gas prices are also witnessing historical lows. Such lows in oil and gas prices can potentially create economically unfavorable conditions for renewable energy and without significant policy support, some renewables may take a backseat to give way to cheap hydrocarbons and fossil fuels.

Finally, COVID-19 is causing a severe economic downturn. The combination of a severe economic slump with that of low oil and gas prices might also lower the consumer uptake of electric vehicles, further derailing our efforts to move to a greener and more sustainable future.

The future, however, need not be so grim. If governments the world over utilise the stimulus as an opportunity for resilience to climate-related risks, there is still a chance to deliver on our climate targets. Infrastructure financing could target cleaner energy sources or help industries make their supply chains disrupted by COVID-19 more climate friendly.

Just like COVID-19, the key to dealing with climate change is to heed the scientific community’s findings and integrating their advice into policymaking. In times of such crisis, the world has demonstrated that it is capable of taking quick and united action. The same spirit needs to be awakened to deal another global threat -- anthropogenic climate change.

Chandreyee Namhata is an environmental economist based in Sydney and is an Advisor with Infinite Sum Modelling LLC.. Badri Narayanan Gopalakrishnan is Co-Founder and Partner, Infinite Sum Modelling. Views are personal.
Chandreyee Namhata
Badri Narayanan Gopalakrishnan