The New Reality: Will COVID-19 help flatten the curve on climate change?

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Coronavirus: Will COVID-19 help flatten the curve on climate change?
Jeff Semple explores whether the positive change to the climate amid the pandemic could be a big blip or a golden opportunity to flatten the curve on climate change? – Jun 14, 2020

Paul Koch woke up one morning last month and peered out his kitchen window to find a trespasser taking a dip in their backyard pool.

“I called my wife and said, there’s a moose in the pool!”

Koch said the 800 lbs female swam a few laps and then stood calmly in the shallow end for several hours. He called police, who watched as the moose eventually made her own way out of the backyard.

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Ottawa resident Paul Koch captured this photo of the moose in his backyard pool on May 29, 2020. Paul Koch

Koch and his wife have lived in their suburban south Ottawa neighbourhood for 40 years but this was their first moose sighting.

“I couldn’t believe that a moose could get into this backyard, because she had to get over two five-and-a-half foot fences to get in here. But there she was,” he said.

“We’ve had lots of pool parties over the years, but not one with a moose.”

With humans living in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the animal kingdom is reclaiming some territory. Videos posted on social media have shown dozens of monkeys brawling over food in the centre of Thailand’s historic city of Lopburi, wild turkeys strolling the suburbs of Louisiana and penguins waddling through a residential neighbourhood of Cape Town, South Africa.

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“Even here on the campus of the University Toronto Scarborough, when I bike in, I routinely see deer now on-campus,” said Marc Cadotte, a professor of biological sciences.

“The major inhibitor of the movement of animals across the city is traffic, busy roads. And now we’ve seen major roads, major arteries in the city being almost devoid of cars,” Cadotte said.

A herd of Kashmir goats invaded a Welsh seaside resort after the COVID-19 lockdown left the streets deserted. Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

This spring, traffic volumes in Toronto were cut in half. And those silent streets have also provided a breath of fresh air.

Smoggy skylines in some of the world’s most polluted places are giving way to clear blue skies. Just days after India’s lockdown began in late March, particle pollution in New Delhi plummeted by nearly 60 per cent. Paris, Madrid and Rome saw their nitrogen dioxide levels cuts in half.

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In Canadian cities, such as Toronto and Montreal, pollution levels in April fell more than 30 per cent, according to Environment Canada. In Edmonton and Calgary, the drop in NO2 emissions was closer to 40 per cent.

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“I would suspect that we could probably see a 40 or 50 per cent reduction in the number of smoggy days this year,” Cadotte said.

The World Health Organization says pollution kills seven million people every year, including more than 14,000 Canadians, according to Health Canada. Paradoxically, experts expect the cleaner air may actually save more lives this year than will be lost from the virus.

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“A couple of months (of reduction) will do us well because we’re avoiding air-pollution-related deaths and illness, especially at a time when we are really concerned about the respiratory system,” said Miriam Diamond, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Toronto.

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Pollution from nitrogen dioxide emissions is produced by burning fossil fuels to provide heat and power for buildings and vehicles. And scientists are also observing a similar crash in carbon dioxide emissions, which fuel climate change.

“The reduction in terms of tons of CO2 — which is what really matters for the atmosphere — we’re definitely going to have by far the biggest reduction ever,” said Simon Evans, a climate and energy policy analyst at Carbon Brief, a UK-based website.

Even as economies reopen, carbon emissions are expected to end the year down around eight per cent, according to the International Energy Agency, a percentage drop not seen since the Second World War. But analysts say it amounts to little more than a first step toward meeting the Paris climate summit goals to limit the increase in global average temperature to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels.

This line graph from the Global Carbon Project shows an unprecedented drop in CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 lockdown. Global Carbon Project

A United Nations report found global emissions need to fall by 7.6 per cent every year for a decade to meet the Paris climate targets.

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“Basically, we need this kind of reduction every year. And we don’t want to have a pandemic to do that, we don’t want to have an economic recession to do that and so we’re going to need to make relatively large changes,” said Matt Hoffman, co-director of the University of Toronto’s Environmental Governance Lab.

Some believe this pandemic offers an opportunity to flatten the “climate curve”, including Jatin Nathwani, the Ontario Research Chair in Public Policy for Sustainable Energy.

“All of the discussion on climate over the last number of decades has been: how do we flatten this curve, how do you mitigate or reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the risk,” he said.

“We all get up every morning, we get into our cars, we drive, we go to meetings all over the world all of the time. And now we’ve learned: ‘hello, I think we can do these things a lot better.'”

Nathwani’s three-storey office building offers a glimpse into a sustainable future: a “zero-carbon” building, one of first to receive the certification from the Canada Green Building Council, boasts a solar-panelled roof and geothermal heating. The University of Waterloo professor of engineering and environmental studies believes this economic crisis offers a golden opportunity to invest in these green technologies.

Nathwani points to the last time global carbon emissions dropped, following the global recession in 2008-2009. Governments then responded by investing billions of dollars in stimulus funding, mostly into construction projects designed to boost the economy. But those efforts also resulted in a sharp spike in global emissions.

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“I believe that this is going to be different and will be different, partly because the recognition, the notion that we are really facing a very severe climate change question is no longer a matter of debate,” Nathwani said.

This time around, many countries are eyeing a so-called “green recovery”. The European Union is promising to make climate change the centrepiece of its trillion-dollar stimulus recovery plan. France is offering financial aid to its beleaguered airlines, in exchange for investments in electric, hydrogen and other lower-emission aircraft, part of the government’s goal to make its aviation industry the “cleanest in the world.”

Canada has pledged $1.7 billion to clean up orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells in Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C, potentially salvaging thousands of jobs. Canada’s oil sector was already reeling before the pandemic and some analysts predict demand for oil may take years to full recover.

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“I think we are seeing a transformation here that is quite fundamental, that decouples our dependence on oil and fossil fuels,” Nathwani said.

The Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank, recently published a green stimulus wish-list, including training for oil and gas workers in methane detection and reduction, incentives for electric vehicle manufacturers and investments in retrofits for existing buildings.

“We want to be prioritizing those things that are going to do double duty for us — the things that are going to create the most jobs that are going to be durable and sustainable over the long term,” said Josha MacNab, Pembina’s national policy and strategy director.

But others believe that opportunity to invest in a green recovery is being overstated.

“There’s a lot of reasonably loose talk about using this as an opportunity to pivot. I tend to not be convinced by these kinds of arguments,” said Christopher Ragan, an economist with Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission. He notes that this recession is highly unusual — triggered by an intentional locking-down of the economy — and therefore won’t require a traditional stimulus package to assist with the recovery.

“Our economy will only fully recover when it is safe for people to go back and fill all of the seats in the plane, all of the seats in the restaurant, all of the space in the retail sector, all of the desks in a schoolroom; That’s when our economy will go back to normal,” he said.

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“I think the government should be taking climate change very seriously. That’s not an excuse for spending a ton of money in a not very well planned way.”

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Robert Gifford, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Victoria, noted that the disruption caused by the pandemic provides a unique opportunity: Populations tend to be more open-minded about making major behavioural changes at a time like this.

“There is a body of research called Habit Discontinuity Theory, which basically means that when we move residence or are hit with something like COVID, it jars us; And we’re more willing, the research shows, to make changes at those kind of junctures in our lives,” he said.

If nothing else, environmentalists are encouraged by the way Canadians and others have responded to the pandemic, which has seen millions heeding the advice of experts to protect against an invisible threat.

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“The Canadian public has listened,” said Diamond. “We’ve stayed home. We physically distance. We are listening to medical experts and their advice to keep us safe. Now we need to do the same thing when it comes to climate change.”

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