Al Attiyah Foundation has been releasing special reports on the impact of the pandemic on energy, sustainable development and the economy. This latest report tackled the tale of two killers – COVID-19 and air pollution.
Leveraging the benefits of COVID-19 measures to fight air pollution and climate change
The coronavirus outbreak is having an unimaginable impact on the health sector, as well as in all major sectors of the economy. The outbreak is still spreading widely across the globe, although the rate of infections is starting to peak in some countries. However, the number of deaths is still increasing daily, and with several countries beginning to consider some relaxations of lockdown restrictions, there is fear that the outbreak could still occur in waves.
The pandemic has captured the world’s attention because of its death toll and overall threat to means of livelihood. Unfortunately, there are other phenomena such as air pollution and climate change, that have more devastating effects on life and human existence, which have not received serious attention from world leaders and humanity.
COVID-19 should really serve as a wake up call, and the attention of the entire world that is now rightly focused on the human toll of the pandemic, should provide an opportunity to take a holistic look at the comparable life-threatening phenomena of air pollution and climate change, with a view to leveraging the benefits from all the measures currently taken to combat the pandemic.
Seven million people die from air pollution each year
The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a spotlight on the risks to human health posed by air pollution. Air pollution is already a global public health crisis, as it kills seven million people each year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). By comparison, as of 13 May, the total number of infected people with COVID-19 stands at 4,355,456 with 293,090 recorded deaths.
Considering all the current efforts by all of mankind – rich or poor, educated or uneducated, living in rural or urban areas – to curtail the further spread of the pandemic and to improve health infrastructure, it is reasonable to estimate that the total deaths from COVID-19 in 2020 would not exceed 2.5 million. Such a conservative projection shows that the deadly impact of the virus would still be far less than the 7 million people that die from air pollution each year.
Moreover, once a vaccine is found for COVID-19, its killing spree across the globe would be halted, while the annual death tolls from air pollution and the devastating impact of climate change on humanity would continue unabated. This comparison between the devastating death tolls from both COVID-19 and air pollution, highlights why the world must act to maintain good air quality. Otherwise many communities would continue to suffer the debilitating effects of air pollution on human health, well-being, and longevity.
Climate change poses an existential threat to humanity
In 2018, the IPCCC released its Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Activists considered this as a plea from IPCCC to world leaders to stop treating climate as ‘ostriches with heads in the sand’.
In this report, climate change scientists made a final call to policy makers and the global community to take urgent and drastic steps to address the existential threat that climate change poses to humanity. The call was backed up with facts that indicate that the world is completely off track and heading instead towards 3°C, instead of the 2°C enshrined in the Paris Agreement, and far from the desired aspirational goal of 1.5°C.
The report painted a grim picture of the world that is sitting on a ticking timebomb because of human inaction on climate change. It dispels the previous notion that keeping global warming below 2°C this century would make climate change impacts manageable. It appears that going past the new ‘guard rail’ of 1.5°C, which the IPCCC report said could be exceeded in just 12 years (by 2030) is like playing Russian roulette with planet earth.
Failure to act on climate change in the same decisive way the world is tackling COVID-19, would expose humanity to catastrophic consequences that are much bigger than what we are witnessing with the current pandemic. Global sea-level rise would expose more than 10 million people to the risks of flooding if warming is left to go to 2°C. The ability to grow crops like rice, maize and wheat would be significantly hampered leading to widespread hunger, poverty and deaths. There would also be significant impacts on ocean temperatures and acidity, leading to water scarcity and increased spread of communicable diseases. The entire coral reefs could be 100% wiped out at 2°C warming. The North and South poles are already melting at an accelerated rate; ancient trees that have been there for hundreds of years are suddenly dying; and extreme weather events are turning many parts of the world into open furnaces during longer and variable summer months.
Just as all humans are now doing everything possible to keep safe, and to bring this pandemic under control in the fastest possible way, there is a moral obligation for all of us to think how we, as citizens and as individuals, can contribute to help save mankind from the existential threat of climate change. We owe it to ourselves and the future generations to act decisively.
COVID-19 offers some unexpected glimmers of hope
The polluted atmosphere in major cities of the world is experiencing improved air quality during lockdowns. Before the advent of the pandemic, the WHO data shows that 9 out of 10 people in the world breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. However, lockdowns involving restrictions on travel and industrial activities, have resulted in unprecedented reductions in deadly air pollution around the world.
According to a study by researchers from IQAir, a global air quality information and tech company based in Switzerland, there were significant improvements in air quality in seven major cities around the world with high numbers of coronavirus cases and strict lockdown measures.
Also, as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, it is estimated that global CO2 emissions could decline by around 8% this year. The expected cutbacks in fossil fuel use alone, could lead to 2.5 billion tonnes reduction in emissions from fossil fuels in 2020.
These extraordinary improvements in air quality and huge reductions of CO2 emissions, show that changes in human activities and lifestyles can have a momentous impact on climate change, the environment, and the air we breathe.
The impact of uncontrolled climate change and unchecked air pollution may not be as immediate or sudden like COVID-19, but it is equally devastating to health, living standard and economic activity. To avoid the catastrophic consequences that could be greater than the impacts of the pandemic, there is need to build on the current momentum generated in the fight against COVID-19, to combat climate change.
Leveraging the actions on COVID-19 requires that everybody should now put their best foot forward to fight climate change, by fundamentally changing the way we live our lives and be prepared for the necessary massive social and political changes.
Other reports and articles are available to download from abhafoundation.org.