Coronavirus: A double-edged sword amid climate crisis

By Marc Arcas and Beatriz Pascual

San Francisco/Washington, Mar 26 (efe-epa).- The sky has turned blue once again over the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus was first detected in December; in Venice, the canals have become so crystal clear that shoals of tiny fish are visible; and traffic has all but disappeared from the streets of San Francisco.

The European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5 Precursor satellite, meanwhile, has detected a surprising reduction in carbon-dioxide levels in the air in China and Italy, where people’s movements have been sharply restricted in hopes of halting the spread of Covid-19.

Although the phenomenon is most evident in those two countries, it is being seen worldwide.

In Lima, Peru, for example, where a mandatory city-wide lockdown was put in place on March 16, air pollution levels are down 50 percent from the same month of 2018.

Experts, however, caution that those declines are temporary and that the long-term environmental impact will depend on how economic activity is resumed in each country.

Emanuele Massetti, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy, has been studying the impact of the Italian government-mandated national lockdown that was proclaimed on March 10 and restricts the movement and activities of the country’s 60 million inhabitants.

“There’s been a decrease in pollution in Italy because when people stop driving emissions go down. Air pollution has a short lifespan. It gets absorbed by the ecosystem in a few weeks and the air cleans up pretty quickly,” he told Efe.

But Massetti said the cleaner air has no impact on global warming, since large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have accumulated in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution began in the mid-18th century.

Other experts, however, are optimistic the coronavirus crisis can lead to changes at the individual level.

Christopher Jones, director of the CoolClimate Network, a university-government-industry partnership at the University of California, Berkeley, said the big question is whether the pandemic will lead to permanent global shifts in consumer habits.

“Every dollar that people spend contributes to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Maybe people will discover that online meetings work for them, that they can be efficient, and maybe they will stop spending money on hotels, conferences and planes.”

But although there is some cause for optimism, the spokesman for environmental watchdog Greenpeace in China warned that countries’ response to this crisis could exacerbate environmental problems in the future.

“In China, some kind of a stimulus package is definitely going to happen, but debate is now about which direction it should take,” Li Shuo told Efe.

If the measures to reactivate the economy focus on clean energies and environmentally friendly sectors like telecommunications and technology, the coronavirus crisis could have the side-effect of altering the Asian giant’s productive model.

The most likely scenario, however, is that China will opt for “revenge pollution,” Li said, referring to investments in coal, oil and the same heavy industries that have made it “the world’s factory” in recent decades.

Globally, oil is currently the most attractive energy source from an economic standpoint after crude prices plunged this month to levels not seen since 2002.

In that regard, the International Energy Agency has warned that low oil prices could weaken global government investment aimed at encouraging purchases of electric cars and promoting clean energies like solar and wind.



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