OPINION: Blessing in disguise? Coronavirus pandemic is a wake-up call that a clean sustainable world is possible and not a dream

The Earth from space. (business Insider)
  • Worldwide, more than 2 million people have contracted the pathogen and at least 129,000 people have died. 
  • Save for the Spanish flu of 1918, humans have never been confronted by their mortality like right now.
  • The Coronavirus pandemic can also be a blessing in disguise for humans should we all decide to have a candid conversation with ourselves about our very survival and sustainability.

Who knew that one day New York, the city that never sleeps, would suddenly become a ghost town, the Chinese wall would no longer be a fortress and the cradle of mankind with its bustling markets and busy roads would stand empty.

The coronavirus pandemic has gripped the entire world and brought humans to a halt. Governments are racing against time to impose lockdowns, extend curfews and order its citizens to stay at home. Aeroplanes have been grounded, factories shut and currencies and stock markets are crashing down.

Worldwide, more than 2 million people have contracted the pathogen and at least 129,000 people have died. Save for the Spanish flu of 1918, humans have never been confronted by their mortality like right now.

However, amid all this chaos, despair and death, the earth hasn’t skipped a beat. Since COVID-19 broke out in late 2019 the sun has risen and set as it has done for millennia without fail.

The natural world goes on in the same “survival of the fittest” modus operandi. in fact, it’s thriving now and breathing a sigh of relief with all the human activities on the low.

The Coronavirus pandemic as far as nature is concerned is a blessing and long overdue. It can also be a blessing in disguise for humans should we all decide to have a candid conversation with ourselves about our very survival and sustainability.

For decades, scientists and environmentalists have shouted themselves hoarse that the earth is changing and warming up and we need to act fast to have a fighting chance to save our species alongside thousands of other species whose fate directly lies in our hands.

The global average temperature has climbed 0.85 C (from 0.65 C to 1.06 C) during the period from 1880 to 2012, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate scientists now warn that should global temperatures rise by more than 2 C above pre-industrial levels, the consequences will be severe and, in some cases, irreversible.

Even as effects of climate change have stared at us right in the eye with droughts, tsunamis, bush fires, disease outbreaks etc. which used to occur once in a decade becoming a common phenomenon, we have chosen to stubbornly refuse to change our actions.

Humanity’s survival is now tied to the industrialized world holding the global temperature to less than a two-degree increase by the end of the century.

Separating the wheat from the chaff of COVID-19

All is not lost though, great adversities such as the one we are living through now also come packed with great lessons and should we rise to the occasion, we can seize this moment to pause, reflect and get our act together.

One such area we can explore greatly to our collective advantage is the sustainable energy industry. Without power the world is dead and humans can’t survive a day.

Clean energy is now a life and death issue that can no longer be left to politicians, giant corporations and policymakers to discuss it in boardrooms before shoving it under our throats.

Clean air saves lives and has proven especially effective in the fight against COVID-19. New evidence is now emerging that dirty air makes COVID-19 more lethal.

Some experts opine that the reduction in pollution as a result of human activity dying down may have even saved more lives than the death toll caused by the deadly virus in China.

According to rough calculations done by Stanford University scientist Marshall Burke, the reduction in air pollution may have helped save the lives of 77,000 people in China under the age of five, and over 70.

Given the huge amount of evidence that breathing dirty air contributes heavily to premature mortality, a natural - if admittedly strange - question is whether the lives saved from this reduction in pollution caused by economic disruption from COVID-19 exceeds the death toll from the virus itself,” Burke wrote in the G-FEED science blog.

“Even under very conservative assumptions, I think the answer is a clear ‘yes’.”

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) compared the change in air quality before the lockdown in Wuhan on 23 January and during the quarantine between 10-25 February and found concentrations of the gas fell significantly. The reduction was first noticed in Wuhan but eventually spread across the country.

This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event,” NASA air quality researcher Fei Liu said in a statement.

The reduction was estimated at between 10-30 percent. A separate report from scientists in Italy also noted that the high death rates seen in the north of the country correlate with the highest levels of air pollution.

The scientists added that dirty air was already known to increase the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome, which is extremely deadly and a cause of COVID-19-related deaths, as well as other respiratory and heart problems.

Researchers from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health after analyzing data on PM2.5 levels (tiny pollutant particles) and COVID-19 deaths from about 3,000 U.S. counties covering 98 percent of the U.S. population also came to the same conclusion.

Counties that averaged just one microgram per cubic meter more PM2.5 in the air had a COVID-19 death rate that was 15 percent higher.

“If you’re getting COVID, and you have been breathing polluted air, it’s really putting gasoline on a fire,” said Francesca Dominici, a Harvard biostatistics professor and the study’s senior author.

In Kenya, even before the coronavirus pandemic, 14,300 Kenyans died annually from pollution-related illnesses such as respiratory ailments, heart diseases, brain damage, and cancers, according to UN Environment Programme (UNEP) air quality report, 2016.

Window for opportunity

The biggest contributor to air pollution is the burning of fossil fuels by cars, power plants and industrial facilities as well as dirty coal.

The coronavirus pandemic now presents an opportunity for African countries to rethink their energy decisions and sources.

Getting the right energy mix is the way to go and where African governments can jump into the mix and lead from the front. Political goodwill backed by friendly policies to incentivize investors and energy-hungry industries such as aviation, transport, and manufacturing to turn to cleaner energy sources can especially have a huge impact.

“Electrification is an exciting and inescapable trend across industrial technology markets and while the move to more electric propulsion will be gradual for us, it will ultimately be a revolution. Building on our existing expertise in electric technologies and aviation, Rolls-Royce is actively exploring a range of possible markets and applications for electric and hybrid electric flight. We are well placed to play a leading role in the emerging world of personal air mobility and will also look to work in collaboration with a range of partners.” said Rob Watson, who heads up Rolls-Royce’s Electrical team.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) derived from sustainable oil crops such as jatropha, camelina and algae or from wood and waste biomass can further reduce the overall carbon footprint by around 80% over their full lifecycle.

Already SAF is transforming the aviation industry and in 2019, more than 200,000 flights flew using a SAF blend and more than 40 airlines now have experience with it. This should be encouraged, our survival depends on it.

Locally, the Kenyan Matatu industry can be supported to gradually shift to hybrid and fully electric cars to keep up the momentum. Nopia Ride, the first-ever fully electric taxi service in East Africa is proof enough it's not impossible.

Closer home, Volkswagen and Siemens are already testing electric e-Golfs in Rwanda and plan to produce 600,000 electric cars a year by 2022 while Jaguar Land Rover is similarly charting new fronts in clean energy. It was certified as carbon neutral for the second consecutive year early this year.

The Carbon Trust re-certification is part of Jaguar Land Rover’s journey to Destination Zero, after it was originally achieved two years ahead of a commitment to operate carbon neutral UK manufacturing by 2020, highlighting Jaguar Land Rover’s pledge to zero emissions and its ambition to make societies safer and healthier, and the environment cleaner.

The company also runs clean and safe water projects in Kenya and Uganda and clean cook stove programmes in India and Ghana, delivering both environmental and social impact benefits.

Africa can drive the clean energy change campaign

Going forward, poor countries in Africa should have no business investing in dirty energy sources. With many countries already saddled with huge debts, creaking health care systems to extreme social inequality, a second pandemic like COVID-19 risks virtually wiping out the African race.

53 countries in Africa have so far been hit by COVID-19 with 17,223 cases reported. Out of this, 920 people have died and 3,556 recovered as of April 16th, according to Daily Nation's newsplex.

And why should we even be flirting with death in the first place when Africa is rich in renewable energy sources, including hydro, sun, wind and others?

As African economies continue to grow, demand for energy is only going to soar. Africa can deploy modern renewables to eliminate power shortages, bring electricity and development opportunities to rural villages that have never enjoyed those benefits, spur on industrial growth, create entrepreneurs, and support increased prosperity across the continent.

Countries like Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco and South Africa are leading this effort, while some of Africa’s smaller countries including Cabo Verde, Djibouti, Rwanda and Swaziland are slowly but surely catching up having also set ambitious renewable energy targets.

Investment in clean energy in sub-Saharan Africa jumped to $7.4 billion in 2018 up from $2.3 billion in 2017 with South Africa accounting for $4 billion of investment driven by a major onshore wind project in 2018, Quartz Africa reported.

However, all this and more now risk going down the drain as the coronavirus pandemic hit hard businesses. With most African startups in clean energy getting their funding from the west which is equally hard hit by the pandemic, funds will naturally dry up and with the steam of sustainable energy.

Local governments may also jump into the fray and further choke the remaining life out of the sustainable energy industry by turning to cheap but lethal dirty coal as an alternative.

Politicians are already responding to the pandemic with economic stimulus packages skewed toward helping polluters and locking in dangerous emissions for decades to come.

As coronavirus has so deadly shown us, we can’t dare allow that on our watch, over our dead bodies.

We can’t let the coronavirus be a pretext for handouts to oil companies or for stalling the urgent climate action needed this year. If anything there has never been a better time to invest in clean energy than right now.

As we enjoy clear skies and fresh crisp air for once in years, lose ourselves in nature sounds never heard before and even residents in northern India basking in the glory of seeing the snow-capped Himalayas, some 200 kilometres away for the first time in 30 years that is our cue to act. It has never been clearer.

The coronavirus pandemic is a wake-up call that a clean sustainable world is possible and no longer a dream. What a tragedy would it be to let such a life and death opportunity like the one confronting us now to slip us as we watch. The greatest threat isn’t the loss of human life but the loss of what makes us human.

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of PulseLive/BusinessInsiderSSA


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