Our Environmental Crisis in a New Post-Covid-19 World – Pluses and Minuses of a Pandemic

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You might have thought that with Covid-19 locking down life, I’d have ample free time to post to my blog.  Fact is, I’ve been remarkably busy, in remarkably ineffective ways.  With next to nothing on my schedule for weeks, I’ve fallen into the trap which others have commented on.  While some people have used the sudden cessation of normal life to undertake projects that they had reluctantly shelved for years, others of us have frittered our time away, aimlessly drifting off in all directions without actually leaving the house.  Google has facilitated this in my case – now my drifting from link to link has no bounds and hours can go by before I remember what it was I went to Google for in the first place.  I climb back out of the rabbit hole, only to discover its already time for dinner.  And the weeks have rolled by.

That our Spring, so full of promise in early March, decided to pause and come in a bit late instead of super early, gave me the impression that time was standing still.  And yet, if one looks carefully, one can find ample evidence that the world still revolves at the same speed, still travels around the sun, and still changes under the pressure of all our mistreatment (although some of that mistreatment has abated because we have all been staying at home).  You have to search to find this evidence in the media.  Covid-19 has taken all the oxygen.  The CBC evening news program (which my parents watched religiously when I was a child, and which I’ve watched religiously ever since I returned to Canada in 1994) has almost become the Covid-19 Report.  Nothing else breaks through.  Even a tragic mass shooting of 22 people in Nova Scotia was reported through a Covid lens (ad nauseum, I might add – the CBC seems to feel obliged, without exception, to devote a full week on every story involving mass death of Canadians).  Lots of emphasis on how difficult it was to grieve when people could not gather or hug.  A little bit of wondering about whether the gunman finally lost his cool under the stress of days of forced inactivity because of Covid.

Nature of the Pandemic

So, what has been happening in the world, and what has not?  And what does this mean for the future?  I’ll now do something frankly stupid – try to look at the pandemic from inside the middle of it and draw some useful conclusions.  I cobbled together some numbers from WHO to look at apparent differences in impact among countries, knowing as I did so that the infection reached countries at different times so the situation on 17th May (when I accessed the data) is quite late (China), somewhere in the middle (USA, Canada, France), or very early (Peru, India) in the course of this first wave of infections.  Data on number of cases are flawed, to varying degrees, by the low and variable levels of testing, and data on deaths, which might be expected to be more accurate (dead bodies do focus the attention), are also of variable value due to differing ways of characterizing ‘cause of death’.  I used data for 17 countries including the 12 with the largest number of cases, plus four others with high numbers of deaths as reported by WHO.

I looked at the deaths per 100,000 of population to see if there was any pattern.  As the figure shows, deaths per 100,000 is all over the map for the 17 countries plotted here.

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Plot of Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 as of 17 May 2020, using WHO data for 17 countries with highest total cases and/or high numbers of deaths reported, and latest numbers from UN Population Division on national population size.

It’s tempting to suggest that the data for Belgium, Russia and India are particularly inadequate.  It’s tempting to suggest there is a cluster of low death rate countries including Canada, Germany, Brazil and so on averaging around 10 deaths per 100,000, and a cluster of high death rate countries – Spain, Italy, France, and UK – averaging around 55 deaths per 100,000.  With the Netherlands and the USA somewhere between.  There is certainly no tendency for the deaths per 100,000 to be more-or-less the same across most countries.  Its also clear that this per capita death rate is not related to population size in any simple way.  And finally, in this graph, the USA is not wildly different to other countries.  The USA has so far had way more deaths than any other country, but that is partly a function of its size.

It’s also tempting to suggest that, given the inadequacy of the data, this graph is meaningless.  In fact, if I were a reviewer of a paper including this graph, that’s the conclusion I would draw! 

We will probably have to wait some time before we can truly explore how this virus attacked in different countries (although in the interim, people with greater expertise in epidemiology than me will be able to make some real headway).  Then perhaps the differing approaches taken in trying to deal with it can be judged in terms of their relative effectiveness.  For now, I’ll limit myself to two comments: First, the data seem to be a bit of a dog’s breakfast.  Second, countries are taking decisions on containment – to lockdown, to individually distance, to quarantine – or worse, to move back towards ‘normal’ – that appear more driven by politics, public pressure, or the all-important GDP, rather than by the apparent status of the outbreak.  I fear we will see more bad news in the weeks and months ahead as people gather, mask-free, to celebrate their all-important freedom.

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Protestors outside the Massachusetts State House on May 4th calling for an end to restrictions to contain the coronavirus.  Photo © David L Ryan/Boston Globe.

The Economic Impact

The major direct consequence of efforts to contain this pandemic has been the shutting down of large swaths of the global economy.  The International Energy Agency’s Global Energy Review, which normally is released about now and reviews the preceding calendar year, in 2020 has looked as well at the first three months of 2020 (with some data up to end April).  It refers to the effects of the pandemic as unprecedented in peacetime, and projects a 6% global reduction in demand for energy for 2020.  This is the largest downturn in demand in 70 years (largest ever in absolute terms), and seven times larger than the downturn due to the 2008 financial crisis.  This drop in energy demand has been caused by the shuttering of manufacturing plants, a curtailment of retail, and a drastic reduction in transportation of all types.

Image from IEA Global Energy Review 2020 © IEA

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Image from IEA Global Energy Review 2020 © IEA

IEA’s graph of annual change in demand is particularly deceptive at first glance because it plots percent change in demand from year to year.  That is not the same as actual demand, and while the graph suggests demand has fluctuated a fair bit from year to year it also suggests, to the graphically naïve (including befuddled me when I first saw it), that on average demand for energy has not budged since 1900!  So – tilt your head to the right as you look at this graph because the zero line is a hell of a lot higher in 2020 than it was in 1900. 

IEA points out that this loss of energy demand impacts various sectors and nations differently.  Countries in full lockdown mode see about a 25% decline in overall energy demand week after week until they begin to recover.  Oil is hit hard because of the cuts to road transport and aviation.  As a consequence, the mix of fuels providing energy shifts and, continuing the trend set in 2019, renewables and other green fuels will have provided more of the energy used than will coal.

The extent of the economic downturn is most obvious in aviation.  There were 716,727 commercial flights made during the first week of December 2019, but that number fell to 287,760 by the first week in April 2020, a markedly different trend than in 2019 when the first week of May saw 733,576 flights.  Even this number was being held artificially high because airlines were maintaining services, often at the request of governments, despite a lack of passengers.  The number of passengers passing through security at US airports shows the real state of affairs – down 96% between 1st March and 16th April while the number of flights ‘only’ fell by half.

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Number of passengers per day in US airports 2020 and 2019. Graph © Business Insider

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) upped its estimate for 2020 losses in passenger revenues from $252 billion to $314 billion, a 55% vs a 44% loss compared to 2019, in the space of just three weeks between 24th March and 14th April.

Along with the airlines, all other components of the tourism industry have been hit exceptionally hard, and that means that communities dependent on tourism have been particularly affected as well.  What will happen to the economies of Caribbean, Mediterranean, South-east Asian countries which have relied substantially on tourism for economic well-being?  What will happen to cities like Paris, Sydney, New York, or dare I say Dubai?  What will happen to theatre, and most other forms of the entertainment industry?  Will the NBA final or any other major sporting event even feel like a real event without packed stands and a crowd cheering in unison?  Because it seems increasingly unlikely that the global economy is going to bounce back quickly, and those sectors, or communities, that have been particularly hard hit will suffer for a long time.  In fact, given the extent to which people seem to be ignoring the informed medical advice about taking steps to minimize spread of the illness, and therefore, the likelihood of multiple waves of infection during the year or more before we get effective treatments or vaccines, I think we are facing a future which is going to be notably different to the recent past, and not in ways that we have chosen, or even foreseen.

Some Good News

And yet… there is some good news hidden in all this doom and gloom.  For example, with the rapid curtailment of energy demand, we are going to have a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 2020.  IEA estimates that energy-related emissions will be just 30.6 gigatonnes CO2 for 2020.  That’s still a lot of CO2 but almost 8% lower than in 2019, and the lowest emissions rate since 2010.  It will also be the greatest emissions reduction ever seen, and six times larger than the decline caused by the economic downturn of 2008.

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Image from IEA Global Energy Review 2020 © IEA

When I first heard this news, I naively wondered if we could see this reduction in the CO2 concentrations atop Mauna Loa reported continuously by NOAA.  (I don’t always think clearly!)  Let’s just say that the 8% decline in emissions is going to be very welcome, but we need many years of such declines if we are going to keep warming to within 1.5oC.  Yes! The reduction in emissions achieved by the pandemic’s collapsing of the economy is of the same scale as the reduction we need year after year between now and 2050 to meet the Paris Agreement target!  And reducing emissions by 7 or 8% is not going to materially reduce the atmospheric concentration of CO2 – it will take years of such reductions to see that effect.  There is another important message embedded in this emissions reduction – anyone who still thinks we can solve climate change by shutting down our economy and living simply as in ye olde times needs to think twice.  We’ve almost shut our economy down over covid, and hardly made a dent!  We have got to reimagine our economy as one that is vibrant, but in a far less carbon-intensive way.  We’ve got to change our sources of energy, not simply turn off the taps and switches.

The downturn in 2020 has been accompanied by bluer skies, clearer waters, and much more evidence of wildlife in our public spaces.  Some people living in large cities have probably seen the stars for the first time in their lives. 

It’s amazing how quickly Nature is able to reveal herself once our mistreatment is eased.  A few months of cleaner air just may remind some of us of what we have largely lost over preceding years.  Might we want to hold on to that improvement as we recover from the pandemic?  Hold that thought a minute; it could become useful.  Meanwhile, get out and enjoy nature.

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When British Columbia’s site for reserving campsites in provincial parks reopened on Monday 25 May, it crashed immediately when 50,000 people attempted to book.  Photo © Pierre Leclerc/Shutterstock

What Will the Recovery Look Like?

Previous economic downturns have been followed by relatively rapid surges in activity which have brought CO2 emissions back to and higher than where they were prior to the downturn.  While the recovery this time may be slower, nobody is predicting economic activity will remain low.  Nor should it!  We need jobs and income to sustain lives.  And yet… There is the possibility after an economic collapse to rebuild differently, and there is some evidence that in some jurisdictions, governments are acting to stimulate economic growth in ways that simultaneously shift energy use in sustainable directions.

Canada

In Canada the surreal battle between Premier Jason Kenny of Alberta and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over Alberta’s flagging oil sector was raging well before the pandemic hit.  Kenny, styling himself as Captain Courageous, protecting vulnerable Alberta from all those nasty, liberal people elsewhere in Canada, was doing a pretty good job of riling up his base á la Trump when the combination of a silly spat between Saudi Arabia and Russia – my oil well is bigger than yours – and a spiky little coronavirus combined to lower the value of oil below zero.  Here, Mr. Refinery Manager, I’ll pay you to take my oil.  Sort of left Mr. Kenny without much of an argument.  What valuable oil resources did you say Alberta has?

Except that large numbers of Albertans were losing their jobs as the oil sector tanked.  So far Trudeau has been making the right kind of responses.  In early March, speaking at the Prospectors and Developers Association conference in Toronto, Trudeau invited advice from the business sector on how to transition to a low-carbon economy, and noted that “moving towards a low-carbon economy is a big adjustment for many industries, including yours. This transformation won’t happen overnight.”  The speech was seen as a positive message by the mining industry.  Then with the covid-induced collapse, he provided $2.4 billion to help laid-off Alberta workers clean up orphaned oil and gas wells and stop the leakage of methane gas.  This may not have been the support Kenny was looking for, but it provided some relief from unemployment while solving some of the environmental problems generated by the oil industry.  (Of course, conveniently forgotten is that, once again, the fossil fuel industry is having its mess cleaned up by the taxpayers.  Funny how that always seems to be what happens.)

Since late April, there has not been much out of Ottawa re the oil sector.  They’ve been busy dealing with the pandemic but I hope their experts have been meeting in back rooms to figure out how to restart the economy without going back to the old, dig it up and ship it out approach.  Certainly, there has been plenty of evidence that the old ways are truly dead.  For example, Norway’s $1 Trillion sovereign wealth fund explicitly singled out Canada’s oil patch leaders, along with some others, to be blacklisted – all part of a plan to rid its fund of carbon-intensive risk.  For another example, a leader in Alberta’s oil drilling industry wrote in the Globe & Mail about how it was possible for the Alberta drilling industry to retool and retrain to exploit geothermal energy instead of messy tar sands.  He said this was possible because that is what his company had done — how’s that for irrefutable logic? 

Meanwhile, Mr. Kenny unwisely sank $7.5 Billion of Albertan’s money into the Keystone XL pipeline – perhaps the most blindly ignorant thing he could possibly have done with those funds.  Still, it serves to remind Albertans of who is on their side.  Meanwhile, many of us wait, less and less patiently, for Justin Trudeau to finally wheel out something solid to combat climate change.  He has a wonderful, virus-brought opportunity to stimulate economic recovery while reshaping the energy sector in this country, but will he muster the courage to do so?

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Jason Kenny announcing the commitment of $7.5 Billion of Alberta government funds in the Keystone XL pipeline – a pipeline in a foreign country that may never get built. 
Photo © Jim Wells/Postmedia.

Elsewhere

There are encouraging signs from some other places that the economic rebuild is being done in sustainable ways.  If a global pandemic is a great time to build pipelines without anyone noticing (that’s the latest piece of brilliance out of Alberta), it’s also a great time to put in bike lanes and pedestrian-only malls.  They can be advertised as temporary, but people will come to love them, and many cities around the world are doing this.  Milan’s Strade Aperte plan announced in late April is quite ambitious, and New Zealand’s progressive government has funded all cities to increase pedestrian and bicycle access.  Other than Montreal, however, Canadian cities seem to be quite timid and they may be losing a golden opportunity.  In fact, cities like Toronto may see an upsurge in car traffic because people will be avoiding crowded public transport.  Come on, Canada, get with the program.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Crisis Unfolds in its Inevitable Way

In the middle of the pandemic, the Great Barrier Reef bleached severely, the third major bleaching of this iconic system since 2016.  If you were paying attention, you heard about it.  But if not, this bleaching has come and gone with scarcely a wimper.  The extent of what is happening to coral reefs deserves yet another post of its own, and I’ll turn to that next time.  Let’s just say that if it takes at least a decade to ‘repair’ a damaged reef (in terms of coral cover – a very incomplete level of ‘repair’), three major bleaching events in the space of four years have halted the repair process, at least for now.

Despite this bad news, the Australian political class, along with Rupert Murdock and most of the Australian media, and a growing number of people in the reef tourism sector (people who really should know best what is happening because they are taking tourists to the reef daily) all continue nonsense claims about the reef not being damaged, or recovering overnight, while promoting the gas and coal industry, and anything else that should be anathema in that climate-ravaged country.  If anyone, anywhere, wants non-American evidence of the damage that can be done to democracy by money and vested interests, just take a look at the feeble responses of most politicians in Australia to any notion that maybe climate change is an existential problem for this hot, dry nation, and maybe their gas and coal industries need to be scaled back.

Closer to home, I think of Canada’s Arctic coastline as our equivalent to the Great Barrier Reef.  Like Australians 50 years ago, Canadians today are largely unaware of our Arctic coast, and we have generated even less detailed information concerning how it functions.  Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans chose to mark Earth Day 2020 by releasing its report: Canada’s Oceans Now: Arctic Ecosystems 2019, accompanied by a 206-page technical report.  The press release suggested the report “provides useful educational content for students and all Canadians to read on Earth Day while at home” – nothing like the government giving us homework during a pandemic lockdown!

Still, I hope many Canadians will have at least peeked at this report.  It defines Canada’s Arctic Ocean Area as the ocean over Canada’s Arctic continental shelf and the islands there contained.  It reveals this as a 4 million+ square kilometer area, spanning 30 degrees of latitude, and equal in size to 41% of Canada’s total land area.  The mainland coastline is in excess of 176,000 km in length, and the 36,500+ islands together include about 800,000 square kilometers of land.  This vast area is populated by just 65,000 people, and the vast majority of Canadians have never set foot in it.

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A Canada most of us scarcely know. And a region that is changing very rapidly because of climate change.  Is Canada even equipped to manage this region sustainably? Photo © DFO.

Much larger than the Great Barrier Reef, it lacks that region’s diversity, but it is biologically rich in fish, marine mammals and birds.  The report, which makes extensive use of Inuit knowledge as well as of the science that has been done, takes pains to stress how much we do not know about this region, and how little information we have available even to detect changes that are taking place.  Although this report does not say so, the paucity of information about the Canadian Arctic is a failure of Canada’s responsibility to know about its land and waters.  There is a real need for funding to build the basic inventory of information about this part of Canada, and other forms of inducement to bring more scientific effort both from government and from the university sector.  This need is acute because the Arctic is warming at 2-3 times the rate of more equatorial parts of the planet, and that melting is already producing profound changes in geography and ecology both on land and in the water.  While the population may be small, the lives of Canada’s arctic inhabitants are being irrevocably changed and government lacks the data to adequately simulate or anticipate what may be coming.

The report does a good job of pointing to the special role of sea ice in the Arctic, distinguishing between that ice which is anchored to shorelines and the free-floating pack ice.  These are behaving differently as the ocean warms.  Apparently, prevailing ocean currents are pushing multi-year ice into northern Canadian waters and this part of the Arctic is likely to be the last place in that ocean to have summer ice.  There are important implications here for conservation of ice-dependent ecosystems and organisms.  As well, the melting of sea ice, which is one of the things well documented over 40 years through use of satellites, is shifting the balance from under-ice to open water productivity by phytoplankton.  As a consequence marine food webs are altering, although at present there is insufficient data to understand the pace or the full consequences of what is happening.

While this report, and its more technical companion, avoid alarmism, a careful reading reveals the enormous consequences of what is now happening, although without a clear statement about pace.  Canada is going to have to deal with many of these consequences, as they affect living and operating in the Arctic.  What happens to Inuit culture as the world melts?

Elsewhere, the long march to a warmer climate continues apace.  CO2 above Mauna Loa averaged 416.21ppm in April 2020, up from 413.33ppm last April, and 393.18ppm a decade ago.  Our chances of containing warming to 1.5oC have grown vanishingly small, and a sea level rise measured in meters by 2100 is no longer fiction.  On April 30th, a paper in Science reported on NASA’s new ice monitoring satellite, ICESat-2 (Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2) launched in 2018.  By accurately measuring elevation, over time it can map rates of ice loss.  The rates are very variable from place to place across Antarctica, but in some places the rates of loss are on the order of a meter per year.  Over all Antarctica, ice loss amounts to 3200 cubic kilometers of water per year, raising sea level 8.9mm.

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Image based on data from ICESat-2 and ICESat to compile rates of loss of altitude between 2003-9 and 2018.  The rate for all of Antarctica, 3200 cubic kilometers of water per year, is half the flow of the Amazon, twice the Congo, or six times the Mississippi or the St. Lawrence; a lot of water entering the ocean.  Image and data courtesy NASA Scientific Visualization Studio.

While warming continues apace, the action to address this existential problem has fallen off.  Governments are understandably preoccupied with the pandemic, and delaying major in-person conferences, such as COP26 – the next international climate conference, is wise.  COP26, originally set for November 2020, had been postponed to May 2021, but has now been postponed until November 2021.  Unfortunately, the flamboyant climate conferences are useful vehicles for holding nations’ feet to the flame, and without them action falters.  Witness the fact that action on climate change was one of the major demands by voters in the Canadian election last October.  Canada still awaits tangible action by the national government, showing that this message was received and that plans to strengthen the so far rather tepid Canadian performance on climate are now being put in place.  Yes, the government has been busy, but its been eight months already and all we have is some encouragement to the Alberta oil industry to clean up some abandoned wells.  Time for some real action, Mr. Trudeau.

Canada is not alone in slowing action on the climate file.  The USA continues to back away from every piece of environmental legislation it has on the books.  Australia is intransigent in its enthusiasm for its fossil fuel industry.  And climate change is hardly spoken of around the planet.

Australia’s case is particularly surprising given the abundant evidence of the damage already experienced there due to climate change.  Australia currently subsidizes its fossil fuel industry with about $57 billion per year according to the IMF, and its commitment under the Paris Agreement has been widely denounced as inadequate.  Yet, the Australian government recently announced it would not be altering its announced Paris target for emissions reduction until 2025 (countries are supposed to be racheting up their commitments year by year beginning before 2020).  Still, Australia finally took some positive action on climate with the release on 21 May of a discussion paper, Australia’s Technology Investment Roadmap, which is supposed to drive the innovations needed to move towards a carbon-neutral economy.  The fact the roadmap exists is a positive glimmer; the absence of any milestones for reductions in emissions, or carrots and sticks to move the economy forward shows it to be little more than green window dressing at this stage.  But, given past performance, even dressing the windows can be a sign of an awakening.

Not to pick on Australia.  Slacking off on climate action seems to be prevalent all over.  Remember my earlier comment that the blue skies, lack of smog, clear waters, abundant wildlife during the pandemic shutdown might remind us of how wonderful the world can be, and might serve to stimulate a desire to attend more closely to the needs of nature?  Here in Canada, as Spring moves into Summer, there is a surge of interest in camping, canoeing, and hiking in our natural areas.  Maybe, just maybe, we are about to see a reawakening of enthusiasm for nature, and a recognition that we have got to act to avoid destroying this source of so much that is good in our lives.  Let’s promote that thought.  It might help.

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Canoeing in Algonquin Park, Ontario.  Photo © Voyageur Quest