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Our Climate in Post COVID-19

Climate policy-makers and advocates agree its’ a good opportunity to integrate the Green Recovery concept and climate friendly policies into the recovery after COVID-19 to help address long-term solutions and sustainable development the world has long wished for, as having manifested during the lockdowns

Shortly after the COVID-19 emergence was reported in Wuhan City of China in last December, the Chinese government a few weeks later shutdown various activities including transportation in and out of the city in an attempt to curb the spread of the new disease. 

What followed the incident months later is the shake-up of the thinking and of the search for ways to properly address critical environmental challenges including climate change, which have manifested themselves as the pre-existing crises pending for a long-term endeavour to address them.

Following the shutdown in China and in other cities worldwide, key satellite stations including NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) revealed for the first time the effects of the city shutdowns to the atmosphere as their satellite maps showed significant decreases of key pollutants like nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and carbon monoxide (CO). Carbon dioxide or CO2 was also later reported of a sharp drop following the break of related activities.

As reported by NASA scientists, the reduction in NO2 pollution in China measured from Jan 1 to February 25, compared to the same period of 2005 to 2019, was down from 10 to 30%.

The US-based National Center for Atmospheric Research, which monitored changes in such key pollutants in China from NASA satellites from February 1 to March 10, also found a similar trend. It reported the 70% peak reductions of NO2, and 30 to 45% peak reductions in CO, compared with the same period of 2019.

Nasa maps showing concentrations of NO2 over China between January and February. 
Credit: NASA

The situation was similarly taking place in Europe during that period of time.

The European Environment Agency (EPA), which took data from a network of more than 4,000 local air pollution measurement stations across Europe, reported that NO2 had decreased in many European cities following the shutdowns, especially during the month of March.

For example, in Milan, the capital of Italy’s Lombardy which was the hardest hit by COVID-19, average concentrations of NO2 during the week of 16-22 March alone was 21 % lower than the same week in 2019.

And the pollutant most critically responsible for climate change, CO2, was reported of the sharp drop too.

According to the article, Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement, published in the world’s famed science magazine Nature in May, the daily global CO2 emissions decreased by –17% by early April, compared with the mean 2019 levels. The emissions before COVID-19 were rising by about 1% per year over the previous decade.

In total, the change in emissions until the end of April was estimated to amount to -1,048 million tons (MtCO2), which is also equivalent to an 8.6% decrease over January to April 2019.

Of this, the changes were largest in China, where the confinement started, with a decrease of 242 MtCO2, followed by the United States, Europe, and India, respectively, the same article noted.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has also projected that the CO2 emissions could fall by 8% this year or some 2,600 MtCO2.

Although there were significant positive signs of environmental improvements over the past months, the data from the same satellites also demonstrated a stark contrast picture.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), based its observations on data taken from NASA satellites by its key observing stations, and found that CO2 levels this year have so far been higher than last year.

The February monthly average of CO2 at Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, a benchmark station of the Global Atmosphere Watch Network, was 414.11 parts per million, compared to 411.75 ppm in February 2019.

“Emissions are different from concentrations as the latter present what remains in the atmosphere,” the organisation had noted about this stark difference, pointing that it was too early to draw firm conclusions on the significance of the economic slowdown on atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

The latest measurement of CO2 concentrations last month was still at 414 ppm, according to NASA.

Understanding the climate

Dr.Kollawat Sakhakara, director of Thailand’s UNFCCC Focal Point Section, Climate Change Management and Coordination Division, Office of Natural Resources and Environment Policy and Planning (ONEP), has been studying the trend as part of his regular work.

He shared his insights at the recent forum series, Our Wild, Our Climate: The State of the Environment in Post COVID-19, organized by Bangkok Tribune and its alliances, with the support of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V.

Dr. Kollawat said CO2 emissions during the first outbreak of COVID-19 significantly dropped as reported by noted researchers who wrote the article published in Nature. 

Citing the same source, he said emissions from surface transport, power, aviation, plus industry were accounted for an almost total reduction in global emissions, or 97%, being the most affected sectors by the outbreak and measures that followed.

In Thailand, carbon emissions in March also dropped by 12.6% or at the amount of 19.8 MtCO2, compared to the same period of last year, largely from the energy sector, the industrial sector, transport, and respectively.

However, that does not mean that climate change has improved, Dr. Kollawat pointed.

The problem, he said, is chronic, and it had worsened even before the health crisis struck, citing the continued increase of carbon concentrations, sea-level rise, a rise in global temperature, and some few indicators.

Dr. Kollawat said the global community had tried to reach a deal to cope with the climate crisis and they managed to agree on the Paris Agreement in 2015, which set the goal for carbon emissions reduction for country members. 

In spite of having the agreement, countries kept wrangling in disagreement about their shared responsibility, the situation that he compared as a “wobbly boat”.

“COVID-19 has just put the brakes on our wrangling before we have fallen into a ravine. 

“It also demonstrates strong evidence to prove that the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions are from human activities. Unfortunately, it means nothing to reduce unhealthy gas in the atmosphere. The problem is still with us, and to solve it, we need to continue our work; keep working and finding a long-term and sustainable solution,” said Dr. Kollawat.

In a bid to limit the 1.5 degrees Celsius, global emissions should need to fall by some 7.6% every year this decade. However, atmospheric carbon levels are expected to rebound again following the come-backs of human activities to reboot the economic recession. The rise of CO2 concentrations and related global warming gases will only be stabilized once annual emissions reach a net-zero, according to climate scientists.

Dr. Kollawat said the COVID-19 outbreak rather helps represent a good opportunity to change the world’s perception on how to save the world from the pre-existing crisis of climate change, adding that many organizations are demanding for “green recovery”, which means any economic and social recovery packages must think about the health of the environment.

Many countries have announced their green recovery packages for Post COVID-19, which are mostly involved with developing clean technology to improve their businesses while benefiting the environment in the long run.

For example, the Korean government agreed with a “green industry revival” in which 1.7 Trillion won would be spent by 2020. The government said it would lead to the 11,000 job creation, which involves the support of key businesses and industries investing in green, sustainable business models and building low-carbon industrial complexes. 

Meanwhile, the European Union has made a progressive move with the approval of the mega-budget worth 1.8 Trillion Euro to recover and sustain its economy with the green recovery concept being at a core of the recovery packages.

For Thailand, Dr. Kollawat said that the government is “going to” consider on how to integrate the concept of green recovery into the country’s action plan on climate change, which sets a target under the Paris Agreement (Nationally Determined Contribution) to help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions at 20.8 per cent by the year 2030, or 115.6 MtCO2.

The government has eyed to reduce 20.4% of greenhouse gas emissions in energy and transportation sector (113 MtCO2), followed by 0.3% in waste management sector (2 MtCO2) and 0.1% in the industrial sector (0.6 MtCO2) respectively to achieve the plan.

 It will focus on clean renewable energy investments, electric personal car production and mass transit system development for urban areas, together with double tract railway system to link major provinces.

Dr. Kollawat agreed that practice of new normal for social distancing like work at home or virtual meetings will enhance the country’s capacity on greenhouse gas emissions on transportation sector that is likely to be in line with the government’s climate change adaptation and mitigation plans.

“COVID-19 has demonstrated that we can do that. So, the next challenge would be how to integrate the health of the environment in our recovery, how to balance all these; the economy, public health, and the health of the environment. It’s a good opportunity for us to review our thinking and think thoroughly from now on, integrating the environment into other aspects,” said Dr. Kollawat.

Green Recovery in Post COVID-19

Dr. Buntoon Srethasirote, a member of the National Reform Committee on Natural Resources and Environment, and also a director of the Good Governance for Social Development and the Environment Institute (GSEI), said COVID-19 has already created the global economic recession for at least a few years, which in terms of the health of the environment, it will be positive for greenhouse gas emissions due to less energy demand, trade, and production from the industrial sectors. 

But this would likely not last so long as the governments would succumb to the pressure in a bid to reboot their plunging economies and inject money to steer the fainted businesses.

At this point, the world is not yet certain which path to take, and a number of interpretations and scenarios have emerged to project the world’s future, including the rewriting of the New World Order, Dr. Buntoon said.

For Thailand, it is in a transition from recovering to restructuring too, with the new vision to shift its economy in Post COVID-19 to a new model of the so-called Sustainism. At least five keys strategies are addressed under this concept; be they putting human security first, moving beyond GDP, reinventing in education, leaving no one behind, and creating open and resilient society.

“Considering the new model, it is full of good intention to shift our future towards the new sustainable economic model. But our test would be the initial recovery package worth Bt 400 billion,” said Dr. Buntoon.

The Thai government, he said, is planning to spend the first Bt 400 billion baht under the post COVID-19 recovery package, which up to 31,801 projects are proposed to receive the support.

Unfortunately, they seem to miss to integrate the green recovery concept to guide them towards a sustainable recovery, given the recent debates by parliamentarians with no mention about the concept or the critical environmental problems like climate change at all, the point that has suggested some loopholes in implementing national strategies or plans towards sustainable development.

The government’s policies and plans, he added, need to be integrated with the green and climate policies, and COVD-19 has provided a good opportunity to shift the country’s development to a more sustainable path.

Dr. Buntoon said recently a group of thinkers are also exploring the new concept of EpiEconomics Equilibrium or integration of the economy, public health, and the health of the environment with a try to balance them under the concept. This is to propose the society another path they can take towards sustainable development.

“We used to think about these separately; an economic committee only thinks about economics and tries to solve economic issues, and a public health committee and an environment committee also think about the issues at their hands, for example. All these should actually go together and be developed alongside,” said Dr. Buntoon.

The public discussed about the green recovery in Post COVID-19 at Dialogue Forum2: The State of the Environment in Post COVID-19

Public policies & engaging citizens

Tara Buakamsri, Thailand Country Director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, in the meantime said, before COVID-19, there had been much enthusiasm about the climate change problem. 

Several countries, 28 at least, had declared the state of Climate Emergency before this was followed by a thousand more of local governments worldwide However, as the new disease emerged, the climate emergency was overtaken and left behind despite the fact that it too needed a sense of urgency to address the problem, said Tara.

So, Tara said the climate policy is therefore important to help keep the pace.

However, Tara cautioned about the current policies which run counter to the expectation, citing some policies by the Thai government are harmful to the environment rather than promoting environmental friendliness.

These, he said, even run counter to the national strategy itself that has addressed about climate change including the creation of low carbon society.

“Looking at our policies at this point, I cannot see any differences, so we may have to keep an eye on how the green recovery concept will be integrated into our policies to better address climate change and other environmental problems after COVID-19,” said Tara.

Tara said public policies are the best cure for climate change. Vaccination, he said, is the world’s hope to control the outbreak, but it is not the case for climate change impacts that require public policies to help boost immunity for all.

The post COVID-19 should be a significant turning point for the government’s policymaking to create a great balance between the environment and economic growth, and with the right policies, those negative to the environment would be eliminated as a result, he added.

“If not, we could plunge into the worsening situation as we have separated from nature for a big while. COVID-19 is just a rehearsal. The real crisis has not yet arrived,” said Tara.

Tara proposed the so-called “public policymaking community”, under which stakeholders come and brainstorm to create sound and sustainable policies, besides pushing them through the current political structure. 

This, he said, could provide a new platform which is away from any personal interests and any political impasses, giving a chance for the problem to be addressed in a timely and thorough manner.

“We can still utilize political structure or parliament in pushing for sound policies, but the new platform too can provide an opportunity for all concerned to work together. It’s a time (considering the urgency of the issue of climate change),” said Tara.

Also Read: Communicating Climate Crisis