Will the delay of the COP26 UN climate negotiations impact international action to decarbonise? Would catch-up talks help? Could the talks collapse because countries stopped paying their dues?
The 26th Conference of the Parties — better known as COP26 — is the United Nations climate change conference that was scheduled to be held in Glasgow, UK, during the first two weeks of November 2020.
But in April this year the COVID-19 pandemic led to the event being postponed, then later rescheduled to November 2021.
That’s a 12-month delay on a meeting of representatives from nearly 200 countries, including New Zealand, charged with monitoring and implementing the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
It will be crucial to make progress towards the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to limit average global warming to 1.5-2℃ this century, relative to the 1890s (the so-called “preindustrial period”).
Preventing ‘Hothouse Earth’
The temperature target agreed in Paris was carefully chosen. Numerous scientific studies show an increase beyond 2℃ would activate self-reinforcing feedbacks in the climate system (such as a weakening of ocean and land carbon sinks). This would tip our planet into an extreme “Hothouse Earth” that could persist for millennia, regardless of what happens with future emissions.
To avoid this scenario, the legally binding UN agreement encourages all participating nations to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases as soon as possible.
As part of the Paris Agreement, developed countries agreed to provide, from 2020, US$100 billion to support developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
National representatives are expected to arrive in Glasgow next year with substantially strengthened plans to reduce emissions and meet their commitments to support developing countries.
The pandemic and emissions
There is no doubt the gathering of 30,000 delegates in Glasgow will come at a time of ongoing uncertainty about COVID-19 and the largest shock to the global economy since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The pandemic is a game changer but it’s not yet clear whether this is good or bad for reducing emissions.
Many of us have made substantial cuts to our travel and embraced remote work and online video chat, particularly at the height of the pandemic. Google and Apple data suggest more than half of the world’s population reduced their travel by more than half in April.
Unfortunately, greenhouse gas emissions have remained stubbornly high. Daily global carbon dioxide emissions fell by as much as 17% in early April. But as the world’s economy started to recover, emissions bounced back, according to the UN, with 2020 likely experiencing only a 4-7% decline in carbon dioxide relative to 2019.
The sobering reality is nations have a lot more work to do to decarbonise their economies. But for many national governments, the thorny question is how to achieve more ambitious emission targets while at the same time rebuilding economies battered by COVID-19.
Although the UN has a large financial shortfall of US$711 million (at the end of 2019) due to some nations failing to pay their annual dues — with the US, Brazil and Saudi Arabia the worst offenders — there is no suggestion of cancelling the COP26 meeting next year.
Catch-up talks have indeed been mooted but so far nothing has been publicly announced. That’s not to say there aren’t intensive negotiations and commitments being made in advance of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. And there are some positive signs.
A pandemic recovery
As the world moves towards an economic recovery after the pandemic, some major economies are tilting towards a green stimulus and public commitments to reduce fossil fuel investments.
Arguably more ambitious is the proposed European Green Deal announced in late 2019. It aims to slash greenhouse gas emissions by half over the next decade and make Europe the first carbon-neutral continent.
To help achieve this, a carbon tax is proposed for imports into the European Union. This threatens to have far-reaching implications for European trading partners such as New Zealand and Australia.
These pronouncements will help boost the negotiations for more stringent cuts to emissions as delegates prepare for the COP26 meeting in Glasgow next year. This can only put more pressure on all nations to be more ambitious.
Attention will inevitably focus on the world’s largest historic emitter, the US, which is formally leaving the Paris Agreement on November 4 this year, the day after the 2020 presidential election.
So the COP26 won’t collapse, but the year’s delay to the meeting may give the world the breathing space it so desperately needs to realise the ambition of the Paris Agreement and avoid the worst of climate change.
Chris Turney, Professor of Earth Science and Climate Change, Director of Chronos 14Carbon-Cycle Facility, Director of PANGEA Research Centre, and UNSW Node Director of ARC Centre for Excellence in Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, UNSW
Face masks are part of our daily lives during the pandemic. Many are made from plastics and designed to be used just once, which means thousands of tonnes of extra waste going to landfill.
Masks may help stop the spread of the coronavirus. But according to one estimate, if everyone in the United Kingdom used a single-use mask each day for a year, it would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging.
Evidence also suggests masks may be a source of harmful microplastic fibres on land and in waterways and litter.
So let’s look at how face masks might be designed to cause minimal harm to the environment, while still doing their job – and which type is best for you.
China is the world’s biggest face mask manufacturer. Its daily output of face masks reportedly reached 116 million units in February this year. That creates a big waste management problem around the world.
One way to address this is to adopt “circular design” principles. This thinking seeks to reduce waste and pollution through product design, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.
When it comes to face masks, the three common types are cloth, surgical and N-95. N-95 masks offer the highest level of protection, blocking about 95% of airborne particles. Cloth masks are designed to be used more than once, while surgical and N-95 masks are usually intended for single use.
Face masks may consist of one or more layers, each with different functions:
an outermost layer, designed to repel liquids such as water
the innermost layer, which absorbs moisture and allows comfort and breathability
a non-absorbent middle layer, to filter particles.
Each type of mask is made of different materials and used in varying settings:
– N-95 masks: These are designed to protect the wearer from 95% of airborne particles and are largely worn by health workers. N-95 masks are designed to fit closely to the face and are usually worn only once. N-95 masks comprise:
a strap (polyisoprene)
nose foam (polyurethane)
nose clip (aluminum)
valve diaphragm (polyisoprene).
– Surgical masks: These are designed to protect sterile environments from the wearer, acting as barrier to droplets or aerosols. Generally intended as single-use items, they comprise mostly polypropylene between two layers of non-woven fabric.
– Cloth masks: These types of masks are worn by the general public. Some are homemade from fabric scraps or old clothing. They may be wholly reusable, or partially reusable with replaceable filters that must be disposed of.
These masks typically comprise an outer layer of polyester or polypropylene (or in some cases, cotton), and an inner layer designed for breathability and comfort – usually cotton or a cotton-polyester blend.
Research suggests cloth masks are less effective at filtering particles than medical masks, but may may give some protection if well-fitted and properly designed. Health advice is available to help guide their use.
Designing for a healthier environment
It’s important to note that any attempt to redesign face masks must ensure they offer adequate protection to the wearer. Where masks are used in a medical setting, design changes must also meet official standards such as barrier efficiency, breathing capacity and fire resistance.
With this in mind, reducing the environmental harm caused by masks could be done in several ways:
– Design with more reusable parts
Evidence suggests reusable cloth masks perform almost as well as single-use masks, but without the associated waste. One life cycle assessment conducted in the UK found masks that could be washed and reused were the best option for the environment. Reusable masks with replaceable filters were the second-best option.
The study also found having a higher number of masks in rotation to allow for machine washing was better for the environment than manual washing.
– Make masks easier to dispose of or recyle
In high-risk settings such as hospitals and clinics, the reuse of masks may not be possible or desirable, meaning they must be disposed of. In medical settings, there are systems in place for disposal of such protective gear, which usually involves segregation and incineration.
But the general public must dispose of masks themselves. Because masks usually comprise different materials, this can be complicated. For example, recovering the components of a N-95 mask for recycling would involve putting the straps, nose foam, filter and valve in one bin and the metal staples and nose clip in another. And some recyclers may see mask recycling as a health risk. These difficulties mean masks often end up in landfill.
Masks would be easier to recycle if the were made of fewer materials and were easy to disassemble.
– Use biodegradable materials
For single-use items, placing synthetics with biodegradable materials would be a first step in circular design thinking.
The abaca plant, a relative of the banana tree, offers one potential option. Its leaf fibre reportedly repels water better than traditional face masks, is as strong as polymer and decomposes within two months. Most abaca is currently produced in the Philippines.
Which mask should you choose?
From a purely environmental perspective, research suggests owning multiple reusable face masks, and machine-washing them together, is the best option. Using filters with reusable face masks is a second-best option.
But when choosing a mask, consider where you will wear it. Unless cloth masks are shown to be as effective as other masks, health-care workers should not use them. But they may be suitable in low-risk everyday settings.
In the longer term, governments and manufacturers must make every effort to design masks that will not harm the planet – and consumers should demand this. Face masks will probably be ubiquitous on our streets for months to come. But once the pandemic is over, the environmental legacy may last for decades, if not centuries.
We are living through the greatest disruption of the postwar era; what is likely to be the defining historical period of our lives. And the disrupter is a piece of RNA surrounded by fat, a virus human beings have never before encountered.
A virus that ticks all the boxes for disaster: it is novel, it is highly contagious, it is transmitted by asymptomatic carriers, and it attacks and kills people whose immune systems have been undermined by disease, inequality, malnutrition, stress and age.
It’s only months since we were overwhelmed with the bushfire disaster. The climate emergency was upon us more viscerally than ever before. Sydney lost its summer to choking smoke; the glorious forests of the Great Dividing Range and eastern sea- board burnt with an unstoppable ferocity. Lives were lost, as were homes, businesses, communities, and a billion native animals. The koalas screaming in agony were heard around the world. This was our global future burning before our eyes.
Then came this virus. And it has shut down much of the world by freezing markets and informal economies that daily feed and service most of the people of the planet. But we should understand the virus as an ecological disaster, just like the climate emergency. They are not causally related. Rather, they are expressions of the same profound overburdening of the planet by anthropogenic excess.
The climate emergency has not abated with the pandemic. Extreme weather is everywhere on the planet. Syria is gripped by its worst drought in 900 years. Locusts are swarming over East Africa. We are warned the climatic sweet spot of the Holocene that has made complex societies possible for the last 6,000 years is coming to an end, to be replaced by unbearable heat in some of the world’s most populous places.
This is the end of the “good times” for the world, but it has been a long time coming. COVID-19 is simply an accelerant. Therefore, it is important now to focus on what has to be done, for all that stands between us and disaster is good government.
Many young people feel deeply pessimistic about the future. They have little confidence organised society can face profound threats, survive them and rebuild. But the world has done so, even within living memory with the astonishing recovery in Europe and Asia after World War II.
Critical moral decisions
In 1945, Europe lay in ruins. Eighty-five million people had perished, most of them civilians, deliberately murdered by starvation or industrial slaughter or burnt alive in their torched villages or fire-bombed cities. Sixty million people were displaced and took to the roads.
The total of lost or orphaned children has never been tallied. The 1944–45 winter had been terrible, crops had not been planted and there was no food. In Berlin, only the Russians seemed to know how to ration food and rebuild civil society: the other Allies were at a loss.
Civil society had been destroyed by oppression, cruelty and hunger. Scarcely any civilian who survived occupation ended the war with a clear conscience. People had to kill, steal, lie, inform on neighbours, refuse to help when asked, fail to fight when needed. And at the end, they had nothing. They amounted to millions upon millions of destitute, damaged people. A friend’s mother who spent the war in Trieste once admitted that there was no human depravity she had not witnessed.
Not only had the physical world been consumed by fire, so also had institutions, communities and infrastructure. Yet out of the carnage, modern Europe and the Soviet Union rebuilt their cities and homes and their civil societies. If the European Union and the former Eastern Bloc have problems now, their flourishing since 1945 has been a miracle. All have experienced a dramatic improvement in living standards in the past three-quarters of a century.
When this pandemic crisis ends, things will be very bad for those with weak, corrupt and incompetent governments. For those with good governments, critical moral decisions will be required: do we reinvest and rebuild positively, or do we inflict austerity to pay down the debt quickly?
The deaths will be proportionately fewer than in World War II, the buildings won’t be smashed, nor the sewers, water pipes and gas pipes shattered. Physically the world will still be there. Farms will still be producing food except where severe weather has destroyed crops. The shock and grief will be awful, and it will be the world’s turning point between collapse or recovery towards a new resilience.
JM Keynes’ 1940 book How to Pay for the War outlined a program of rationing, war bonds and currency creation that could produce the necessary funds without generating inflation. But the minute the second world war ended, 42% of the British workforce was made redundant.
How did the Allies pay for the peace without a return to the misery and chaos that were experienced after World War I? Rationing and austerity continued, but governments did not stop spending. The new British Labour government passed legislation mandating full employment; the existing Labor government in Australia in May 1945, issued its famous white paper, written by Dr HC Coombs titled Full Employment in Australia. We pre-empted the British, but we were of like mind.
Australia, by comparison, got off lightly from World War II. And Australia also had arguably the best government in its history under prime ministers Curtin and Chifley. They believed in the social contract that government was there to serve the people; that our Commonwealth was formed for the “common good”. They were great internationalists. They prosecuted the war, but they also committed from 1943 to building a better Australia for the people who had sacrificed so much to win it.
Their postwar reconstruction scheme, in just four years of war and four years of peace, established a welfare state and addressed historic injustices to Indigenous people who came under Commonwealth laws. They legislated to mandate full employment after the war, despite the demobilisation of the military and of war industries — and it worked.
They reformed the economy from the factory to the farm: General Motors-Holden, the Snowy Mountains Scheme and, this time, soldier settlements that were better planned and more successful. They invested in national and international air travel. They trained hundreds of thousands of unskilled workers to be skilled workers, and sent ex-service people to university. They opened Australia to non- British migration, changing us forever.
They lost office before they could implement Professor Sam Wadham’s massive Rural Reconstruction Scheme. But they also believed that the future depended on education and research, establishing our first research university, the Australian National University, to be a Princeton in the Pacific.
They inaugurated Commonwealth Scholarships and research funding. Our first PhDs began to graduate, and our academic gaze turned away from Oxbridge towards our Asian neighbours for the first time. They invested in the CSIRO. Another term of office may have delivered a national health service. We had to wait almost another 40 years for Medicare, but the four years after the war set up modern Australia.
A new accord?
This story is important to retell because it gives us hope — and a model. We need national reconstruction again: to transition to renewable energy, to restore fairness and security to our economy, to rebuild our rural and regional sectors that are beset by poverty, environmental stress and long-time marginalisation.
Climate change imperils our food security as it does our natural environment and wildlife. If we are to reconstruct Australia as a sustainable economy and society, then perhaps 60% of that effort needs to be in the bush.
National reconstruction requires political will, and political will needs a measure of bipartisan support to be effective. Menzies followed the social democratic Labor lead — social housing, support for universities, infrastructure construction. In the 1980s, the Prices and Incomes Accord was struck between unions and employers under the leadership of the Hawke Government. The accord lost its way after time, but initially it did bring down unemployment and inflation, in return for Medicare and new social transfers.
A new accord would be a different social contract. It would require a summit as before, after consultation and planning. It could be led by First Nations people with a mission to heal the nation and the land, starting with the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
This time its participants would be drawn from across the spectrum: farmers, business big and small, unions, universities and research, state and local government, the health and welfare sectors, culture and the arts. (Universities have played a vital role in changing course for this country in times of crisis and will do so again, just as their researchers, along with the CSIRO, are leading the fight against COVID-19.)
The accord itself could be a commitment to the guiding principles of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which connect social and economic justice to environmental justice.
This new accord would be a commitment to principles of practice that open doors to funding, tax incentives, advice and collaboration among sectors to build a new sustainable economy, turning Australia into the renewable energy powerhouse that the distinguished economist Professor Ross Garnaut envisages.
There would be no compulsion for businesses to sign on, but if they chose to be outside the tent, then they would not receive any benefits and opportunities.
No nation can truly flourish if its hinterland is degraded and unproductive. Global warming threatens our food security, our pastoralists and, as we saw in the summer of 2019–20, our forests and native wildlife. National reconstruction needs not merely to be bipartisan at the top: it must offer genuine participation in decision-making in how to transition to new industries and farming technologies.
We may need to start growing some crops under cover in highly controlled environments with careful water use and no pesticides. If the Netherlands can become the world’s second-largest food exporter after the United States, then we, too, in a more environmentally sensitive way than the Dutch, can build a high-tech food exporting industry that could replace coal and help feed a hungry world.
To do all this, we need a partnership between farmers, the private sector, workers, government and universities. If employers are to receive funding and research support from the public sector, then as their part of the accord they should commit to providing secure jobs and vocational training. They must be prepared to negotiate improving wages and support more generous welfare provision.
Above all, they need to endorse a government-funded Jobs Guarantee to get people back into the workforce with dignity and security: that is, real jobs with award wages, not work for the dole. The economy will not ‘bounce back’ if no one has money in their pocket.
It is to be hoped that the pandemic will bring an end to the distrust of science and learning that neo-liberalism has spread like poison through the rich world.
It will be time to rethink the tertiary and vocational sectors and fund research infrastructure in universities, alongside restoring the CSIRO and providing more job security for researchers. Our universities could then return to being servants of the public rather than fragile, semi-private corporations.
All this is fiscally possible if we accept that we can only pay back the debt by economic growth. Artificially balancing the budget via austerity leads to further impoverishment; investing in people and their enterprises to get on with it restores prosperity so that we can grow our way out of debt.
A fresh narrative
Government cannot do it all. Business is the larger part of society, and reconstruction cannot be done without their cooperative engagement, expertise, creativity and resources. But what is possible with the new accord is not a series of precise prescriptions for reform, but rather a narrative that can capture the trust and enthusiasm of an electorate that is disenchanted with politics and politicians.
People want our leaders to “come together”. The “Green New Deal” is an American idea; the United Kingdom wants a “green industrial revolution”; but we in Australia know how to strike accords and build institutionalised fairness.
Perhaps it does not matter what we call it: perhaps First Nations people will one day permit us to use their term Makarrata to express a new national social compact. We need to reconstruct Australia, better than we have before, and we need to do it for our very survival.
No one—no politician, no scientist, no economist, no bureaucrat, no business leader, no farmer, no pundit and no political party — has all the answers. But collectively we do, provided we can devolve consultation and much decision-making to the communities and regions directly affected. That will build resilience and draw on the experience and knowledge of those who are experts in their own worlds.
The great power of the human mind is that it can work with other minds: our greatest strength lies in each other.
This is an edited extract from What Happens Next? edited by Emma Dawson and Prof Janet McCalman AC, published by Melbourne University Publishing.
Australia’s leading scientists today sent an open letter to Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, speaking out against his support for natural gas.
Finkel has said natural gas plays a critical role in Australia’s transition to clean energy. But, as the scientists write:
that approach is not consistent with a safe climate nor, more specifically, with the Paris Agreement. There is no role for an expansion of the gas industry.
And yet, momentum in the support for gas investment is building. Leaked draft recommendations from the government’s top business advisers support a gas-led economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. They call for a A$6 billion investment in gas development in Australia.
This is a terrible idea. Spending billions on gas infrastructure and development under the guise of a COVID-19 economic recovery strategy — with no attempt to address pricing or anti-competitive behaviour — is ill-considered and injudicious.
It will not herald Australia’s economic recovery. Rather, it’s likely to hinder it.
The proposals ignore obvious concerns
The draft recommendations — from the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission — include lifting the moratorium on fracking and coal seam gas in New South Wales and remaining restrictions in Victoria, and reducing red and “green tape”.
It also recommends providing low-cost capital to existing small and medium market participants, underwriting costs at priority supply hubs, and investing in strategic pipeline development.
But the proposals have failed to address a range of fundamental concerns.
domestic gas pricing in the east coast market is unregulated.
Let’s explore each point.
The effect on climate change
Accelerating gas production will increase greenhouse gas emissions. Approximately half of Australian gas reserves need to remain in the ground if global warming is to stay under 2℃ by 2030.
Natural gas primarily consists of methane, and the role of methane in global warming cannot be overstated. It’s estimated that over 20 years, methane traps 86 times as much heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
And fast-tracking controversial projects, such as the Narrabri Gas Project in northern NSW, will add an estimated 500 million tonnes of additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Accelerating such unconventional gas projects also threatens to exacerbate damage to forests, wildlife habitat, water quality and water levels because of land clearing, chemical contamination and fracking.
These potential threats are enormous concerns for our agricultural sector. Insurance Australia Group, one of the largest insurance companies in Australia, has indicated it will no longer provide public liability insurance for farmers if coal seam gas equipment is on their land.
Fossil fuels in decline
Investing in gas makes absolutely no sense when renewable energy and storage solutions are expanding at such a rapid pace.
It will only result in stranded assets. Stranded assets are investments that don’t generate a viable economic return. The financial risks associated with stranded fossil fuel assets are prompting many large institutions to join the growing divestment movement.
Solar, wind and hydropower are rolling out at unprecedented speed. Globally, renewable power capacity is set to expand by 50% between 2019 and 2024, led by solar PV.
Solar PV alone accounts for almost 60% of the expected growth, with onshore wind representing one-quarter. This is followed by offshore wind capacity, which is forecast to triple by 2024.
Domestic pricing is far too expensive
Domestic gas in Australia’s east coast market is ridiculously expensive. The east coast gas market in Australia is like a cartel, and consumers and industry have experienced enormous price hikes over the last decade. This means there is not even a cost incentive for investing in gas.
Indeed, the price shock from rising gas prices has forced major manufacturing and chemical plants to close.
The domestic price of gas has trebled over the last decade, even though the international price of gas has plummeted by up to 40% during the pandemic.
As Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chair Rod Simms declared in the interim gas report released last week, these price issues are “extremely concerning” and raise “serious questions about the level of competition among producers”.
To date, the federal government has done very little in response, despite the implementation of the Australian Domestic Gas Security Mechanism in 2017.
This mechanism gives the minister the power to restrict LNG exports when there’s insufficient domestic supply. The idea is that shoring up supply would stabilise domestic pricing.
But the minister has never exercised the power. The draft proposals put forward by the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission do not address these concerns.
A gas-led disaster
There is no doubt gas producers are suffering. COVID-19 has resulted in US$11 billion of Chevron gas and LNG assets being put up for sale.
And the reduction in energy demand caused by COVID-19 has produced record low oil prices. Low oil prices can stifle investment in new sources of supply, reducing the ability and incentive of producers to explore for and develop gas.
It’s clear the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission’s recommendations are oriented towards helping gas producers. But investing in gas production and development won’t help Australia as a whole recover from the pandemic.
The age of peak fossil fuel is over. Accelerating renewable energy production, which coheres with climate targets and a decarbonising global economy, is the only way forward.
A COVID-19 economic strategy that fails to appreciate this not only naïve, it’s contrary to the interests of broader Australia.
For each mesh block zoned as residential, we tallied up the total area zoned as parkland within a 5-kilometre radius. The results are shown in the interactive map below, in which darker greens indicate a larger area of available parkland (very light green: 0-4.5 sq km; light green: 4.5-9.2 sq km; mid-green: 9.2-13.2 sq km; dark green: 13.2-19 sq km; very dark green: more than 19 sq km).
Of the 42,199 residential mesh blocks currently under stage 4 restrictions, 3,496 have between 0 and 4.5 square kilometres of parkland within 5km. This equates to about 135,000 homes or 340,000 people with little or no access to parks within their permitted area for exercising.
On average, residents in Cardinia, Mornington Peninsula and Melton have the least parkland within a 5km radius, whereas those in Knox, Yarra and Banuyle have the most.
Haves and have-nots
Our findings confirm that some Melburnians are more fortunate than others in their ability to access urban green space during stage 4 lockdown.
For those less fortunate, the state government should consider replacing the blanket 5km rule with a special provision that allows people to travel outside this radius if they would otherwise be unable to access a park.
Bespoke rules could also help others, such as residents with a disability or older Melburnians who use a mobility aid. While many members of these groups might have plentiful parks within their 5km radius, they may have problems accessing them. Issues can include uneven pavements, kerbs without ramps, or steeply sloped paths.
The state government could help these people by auditing public spaces to establish where structural barriers exist, and then work to remedy them. Alternatively, once again, the blanket 5km rule could be amended with a special provision that allows older Melburnians, or those with a disability, to travel outside their 5km radius to get to the most suitable nearby park.
COVID-19 has curtailed the activities of millions of people across the world and with it, greenhouse gas emissions. As climate scientists at the Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station, we are routinely asked: does this mean carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have fallen?
The answer, disappointingly, is no. Throughout the pandemic, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO₂) levels continued to rise.
In fact, our measurements show more CO₂ accumulated in the atmosphere between January and July 2020 than during the same period in 2017 or 2018.
Emissions from last summer’s bushfires may have contributed to this. But there are several other reasons why COVID-19 has not brought CO₂ concentrations down at Cape Grim – let’s take a look at them.
Measuring the cleanest air in the world
Cape Grim is on the northwest tip of Tasmania. Scientists at the station, run by the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology, have monitored and studied the global atmosphere for the past 44 years.
The air we monitor is the cleanest in the world when it blows from the southwest, off the Southern Ocean. Measurements taken during these conditions are known as “baseline concentrations”, and represent the underlying level of carbon dioxide in the Southern Hemisphere’s atmosphere.
Emissions reductions due to COVID-19 started in China in January, and peaked globally in April. Our measurements show atmospheric CO₂ levels rose during that period. In January 2020, baseline CO₂ was 408.3 parts per million (ppm) at Cape Grim. By July that had risen to 410 ppm.
Since the station first began measurements in 1976, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased by 25%, as shown in the graph below. The slowdown in the rate of carbon emissions during the pandemic is a mere tug against this overall upward trend.
The CO₂ increase is due to the burning of fossil fuels for energy, and land use change such as deforestation which leaves fewer trees to absorb CO₂ from the air, and changes the uptake and release of carbon in the soils.
Large air circulation patterns in the atmosphere spread gases such as CO₂ around the world, but this process takes time.
Most emissions reduction due to COVID-19 occurred in the Northern Hemisphere, because that’s where most of the world’s population lives. Direct measurements of CO₂ in cities where strict lockdown measures were imposed show emissions reductions of up to 75%. This would have reduced atmospheric CO₂ concentrations locally.
But it will take many months for this change to manifest in the Southern Hemisphere atmosphere – and by the time it does, the effect will be significantly diluted.
Natural ups and downs
Emissions reductions during COVID-19 are a tiny component of a very large carbon cycle. This cycle is so dynamic that even when the emissions slowdown is reflected in atmospheric CO₂ levels, the reduction will be well within the cycle’s natural ebb and flow.
Here’s why. Global carbon emissions have grown by about 1% a year over the past decade. This has triggered growth in atmospheric CO₂ levels of between 2 and 3 ppm per year in that time, as shown in the graph below. In fact, since our measurements began, CO₂ has accumulated more rapidly in the atmosphere with every passing decade, as emissions have grown.
But although CO₂ emissions have grown consistently, the resulting rate of accumulation in the atmosphere varies considerably each year. This is because roughly half of human emissions are mopped up by ecosystems and the oceans, and these processes change from year to year.
For example, in southeast Australia, last summer’s extensive and prolonged bushfires emitted unusually large amounts of CO₂, as well as changing the capacity of ecosystems to absorb it. And during strong El Niño events, reduced rainfall in some regions limits the productivity of grasslands and forests, so they take up less CO₂.
The graph below visualises this variability. It shows the baseline CO₂ concentrations for each year, relative to January 1. Note how the baseline level changes through a natural seasonal cycle, how that change varies from year to year and how much CO₂ has been added to the atmosphere by the end of the year.
The growth rate has been as much as 3 ppm per year. The black line represents 2020 and lines for the preceding five years are coloured. All show recent annual growth rates of about 2-3 ppm/year – a variability in the range of about 1 ppm/year.
Research in May estimated that due to the COVID-19 lockdowns, global annual average emissions for 2020 would be between 4.2% and 7.5% lower than for 2019.
Let’s simplistically assume CO₂ concentration growth reduces by the same amount. There would be 0.08-0.23 ppm less CO₂ in the atmosphere by the end of 2020 than if no pandemic occurred. This variation is well within the natural 1 ppm/year annual variability in CO₂ growth.
The road ahead
It’s clear COVID-19 has not solved the climate change problem. But this fact helps us understand the magnitude of change required if we’re to stabilise the global climate system.
The central aim of the Paris climate agreement is to limit global warming to well below 2℃, and pursue efforts to keep it below 1.5℃. To achieve this, global CO₂ emissions must decline by 3% and 7% each year, respectively, until 2030, according to the United Nations Emissions Gap Report.
Thanks to COVID-19, we may achieve this reduction in 2020. But to lock in year-on-year emissions reductions that will be reflected in the atmosphere, we must act now to make deep, significant and permanent changes to global energy and economic systems.
The lead author, Zoe Loh, discusses the CO₂ record from Cape Grim in Fight for Planet A, showing now on the ABC.
At the height of last summer’s fires, some commentators claimed “greenies” were preventing hazard reduction burns – also known as prescribed burns – in cooler months. They argued that such burns would have reduced the bushfire intensity.
Fire experts repeatedly dismissed these claims. As then NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons noted in January this year, the number of available days to carry out prescribed burns had reduced because climate change was altering the weather and causing longer fire seasons.
This public conversation led our research team to ask: if climate change continues at its current rate, how will this change the days suitable for prescribed burning?
Our results, published today, were unexpected. Climate change may actually increase the number of burn days in some places, but the windows of opportunity will shift towards winter months. The bad news is that burning during these months potentially increases the public health impacts of smoke.
A hot debate
Hazard reduction involves removing vegetation that could otherwise fuel a fire, including burning under controlled conditions. But its effectiveness to subdue or prevent fires is often debated in the scientific community.
Those with experience on fire grounds, including Fitzsimmons, say it’s an important factor in fire management, but “not a pancea”.
Despite the debate, it’s clear hazard reduction burning will continue to be an important part of bushfire risk management in coming decades.
Before conducting prescribed burns, firefighting agencies consider factors such as vegetation type, proximity to property, desired rate of spread and possible smoke dispersal over populated areas. But we wanted to distil our investigation down to daily weather factors.
We reduced those factors to five key components. These were maximum temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, fuel moisture and the McArthur forest fire danger index (the index used to forecast fire danger in southeast Australia).
We looked at these elements on prescribed burning days between 2004-2015. We then used climate models to simulate how the conditions would change with global warming over southeast Australia, relative to a baseline historical 20-year period for 1990-2009.
To make a valid 20-year comparison, we compared the historical period to a modelled period from 2060-2079, assuming emissions continue to rise at their current pace.
Surprisingly, we found, with one regional exception, the number of days suitable for prescribed burning did not change. And in many places, the number increased.
As the fire season lengthened under a warming climate, the number of days suitable for burning just shifted from autumn to winter.
Our research indicated that by 2060 there’ll be fewer prescribed burning days during March, April and May. These are the months when most burning happens now.
But there will be significantly more opportunities for burning days from June to October. This is because the conditions that make for a good day for prescribed burning – such as mild and still days – start to shift to winter. Today, weather in these months is unsuitable for conducting burns.
Interestingly, these results aren’t uniform across southeast Australia. For example, much of the Australian east coast and South Australia would see seasonal shifts in burning windows, with around 50% fewer burning days in March to May.
Much of Victoria and in particular the southern regions saw an increase in burning windows during April to May and, in some parts of the state, through September and October as well.
Only the east Queensland coast would see a total reduction in prescribed burn days from April to October.
The smoke trap
This may be good news for firefighters and those agencies who depend on prescribed burning as a key tool in bushfire prevention. But, as so often is the case with climate change, it’s not that simple.
Last year, research showed global warming will strengthen an atmospheric layer that traps pollution close to the land surface, known as the “inversion layer”. This will happen in the years 2060-79, relative to 1990-2009 – especially during winter.
Unfortunately, the conditions that create inversion layers – including cool, still air – correspond with conditions suitable for prescribed burning.
For asthmatics and those sensitive to air pollution, smokier burn days could make winter months more difficult and add further stress to the health system.
It also creates an additional challenge for firefighting agencies, which must already consider whether smoke will linger close to the surface and potentially drift into populated regions during prescribed burns.
This is just one factor our firefighting agencies will need to face in the future as bushfire risk management becomes more complex and challenging under climate change.
The transmission of viruses from bats to humans is not just a matter of a bat biting someone or licking their blood. (Bats do not suck blood as they do in vampire stories.) It is often a much more complex scenario that may involve an intermediary host.
Many other animals are also known to be repositories for human diseases. Rodents carry the plague, pigs transmit influenza and birds transport the West Nile virus. So, why are bats so often blamed for transmitting disease?
As a scientist who has spent years studying the evolution of bats in several countries in South America, North America and the Caribbean, I think that these night creatures are often the victims of misinformation. Most people are afraid of bats, and there is a tendency to connect them to bad things.
One reason bats are blamed for disease has nothing to do with science. Bats are associated with vampires and horror stories, which causes fear and misunderstanding towards these flying creatures.
Some bat species prefer to live in colonies, close to one another, creating a perfect setting for pathogens to spread between each other — and to other species who might also share the space. Bats are also the only mammals capable of true flight, making it easier for them to spread diseases through their guano (bat feces).
But what is particularly interesting is their tolerance to viruses, which exceeds that of other mammals. When bats fly, they release a great amount of energy, which increases their body temperature to 38–41 C. The pathogens that have evolved in bats are able to withstand these high temperatures. This poses a problem for humans because our immune system has evolved to use high temperatures — in the form of fevers — as a way to disable pathogens.
Despite all the negative press bats receive, they make positive contributions to the environment and to our lives.
The majority of species feed on insects, helping protect crops from infestations. They are involved in seed dispersal, such as those from fig trees and silver palms, and the pollination of many plants, including several commercial ones, such as the eucalyptus and agave, which provide natural fibres and beverages, such as tequila and mescal.
And most importantly, bats might actually help to provide the solution for COVID-19 and other viruses. Bats do not get sick from many viruses that might kill humans, and research on how bats achieve this could hold the key to help us fight this and future outbreaks.
It is clear that researchers around the world are doing whatever they can to report the origin of SARS-CoV-2. So far, the most accepted hypothesis is that the novel coronavirus originated in bats. The genome of the virus found in humans is 96 per cent identical to one found in bats. But are these findings being reported the way they should?
Not always, from the bat’s perspective, at least.
Complex scientific studies are being published very fast, which is understandable considering the urgency of this new disease. However, this hastiness is leading to mistrust, confusion and sometimes even fear and hatred towards these flying mammals.
In some places, this growing “bad reputation” has led to the intentional and needless killing of bats in the name of protecting public health. But this could have negative consequences: disturbing hibernating bats causes abnormal arousal and stress, which could lead to the spread of new diseases.
But even if bats are proven to be the source of this virus, they are not to blame for the transfer of SARS-CoV-2 — humans are. We destroy natural habitats at a frenetic speed; we kill threatened species, changing entire food chains; we pollute the air, the water and the soil.
It is expected that new pathogens that were previously locked away in nature will come in contact with people and spread fast as people move around the world. The people who blame bats for COVID-19 should look in the mirror to see if the real vampire resides within.
The health impacts of environmental change are now squarely on the radar. Australia’s recent intense wildfires is one glaring example. Spillover of the virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic from animals to humans is another.
But less is known about the reverse: environmental harms from health care. This is what our study, the first global assessment of the environmental footprint of health care, aimed to do.
We quantified resource consumption and pollution by the health-care sector in 189 countries, from 2000 to 2015. We found health care is harming the environment in ways that, in turn, harm health, thereby counteracting the primary mission of health care.
For example, we found the health-care sector causes a substantial share of the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants: 4.4% of greenhouse gases, 2.8% of harmful particulate matter (air particles), 3.4% of nitrogen oxides and 3.6% of sulphur dioxide.
A vicious cycle
As part of broader economic systems, the health-care sector can inadvertently harm health through purchased resources, and the waste and pollution produced. In other words, it can unwittingly harm health in efforts to protect and improve it.
The aim of our study was not to assign blame to health care. Rather, as our dependence on health care increases, we need to support this sector to become more sustainable so we don’t enter a vicious cycle, where more health care means more environmental damage, and vice versa.
We focused on environmental stressors the health-care sector contributes to with known adverse feedback cycles for health, such as greenhouse gas emissions, particulate matter (10 micrometers or less in diameter) and scarce water use.
We found health care causes environmental impacts that range between 1% and 5% of total global impacts, depending on the indicator. It contributes to more than 5% for some indicators at the individual country level.
For example, along with its contributions to greenhouse gases and air pollutants, health care uses 1.5% of scarce water in the world. Scarce water is measured as water consumption weighted by a “scarcity index”, which takes into account insufficient access to clean water in different countries.
Polluting economies lead to polluting health care systems
For all stressors, countries with large populations, economies and health budgets (the US and China, for instance) dominate the results in absolute terms.
The key message is that we need to understand how these stressors are trending over time, and what measures can be taken to improve health and protect the environment at the same time.
For example, in South Korea emissions of greenhouse gases, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from health care decreased by between 27% and 60% during 2000 and 2015.
Whereas in China, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from health care increased by between 91% and 173% in the same period.
For some indicators such as greenhouse gas emissions and particulate matter, a majority of impacts are hidden in upstream supply chains. Unravelling supply chain connections will help us understand the hotspots of environmental impacts, such as pharmaceuticals and medical supplies.
A matter of ethics
The environmental impact of health care is both a practical and ethical issue for health-care professionals.
In 2015, more than 460,000 premature deaths were related to coal combustion globally. Frankly, why should any hospital purchase coal-fired energy when it produces toxic air pollution that harms health?
Some health professionals may baulk at this additional responsibility because they’re busy providing life-saving treatments and don’t have time to worry about the pollution they cause.
And some might say a global pandemic is not the time to burden health-care professionals with another responsibility.
We argue there’s no better time to raise this issue than when the eyes of the world are on health care. The pandemic has shown us we can achieve change at pace and scale if the evidence is clear and the collective will is shared.
The pandemic has brought attention to waste from single-use personal protective equipment. However, we are yet to develop consistent systems for monitoring these environmental impacts, and to implement effective strategies to reduce these impacts across the world.
The way forward
Health-care organisations at every level (national, regional, hospital, primary care) should measure and track their environmental footprint over time, as they do for health outcomes and financial costs.
All health-care professionals – from doctors and nurses, to managers and members of hospital boards – should understand the environmental footprint of the health care they provide and take steps to reduce it.
The purchasing power of health care should be harnessed to drive sustainability transitions in other sectors. For example, health-care organisations purchase large amounts of food for patients. The managers responsible for this food procurement should ensure the food is healthy, value for money and produced in sustainable ways.
Zoology has an illustrious history; it has triggered paradigm shifts in thinking. One of the best known was Darwin’s theory of evolution, based on his observations of the natural world. It became the cornerstone of current zoological research.
Very few sub-disciplines of zoology are not firmly anchored on ideas around change over time, driven by some advantage that individuals get from specific heritable characteristics. In this spirit of observation of nature, linked to robust and detailed analyses of trends, zoologists have been sounding the alarm for many years about the current mass extinction and the negative consequences of disrespecting nature.
Those chickens have come home to roost.
Ultimately, COVID-19 is zoological in origin. And now, in the midst of the pandemic, it is modellers, virologists, medical specialists and engineers who are driving the scientific response to the global crisis.
Their role is crucial because they can contribute to preventing zoonotic outbreaks in future. But how? What could zoologists do differently?
Firstly, multidisciplinary research will be the cornerstone, forging links that haven’t existed before. Secondly, we will need to broaden our species focus. So far, research has targeted species known for carrying diseases that can infect other species – such as bats and primates. But this will need to be expanded to, for example, small carnivores.
What do we know already?
Zoologists have known for decades that some of the most virulent viral infections are animal in origin. These viruses occur naturally and at low levels. In their natural animal hosts they are often not harmful.
Viruses are not autonomous. They require the host’s DNA to replicate. Many viruses are therefore species-specific and cannot replicate outside their natural host. But a random mutation in the right location in the virus’s DNA can allow the virus to establish in a new host species.
Perhaps the best-known example is HIV/AIDS, which is simian (chimpanzee) in origin. Here, the simian immunodeficiency virus successfully transitioned to humans – through contact with animal blood or meat – to become the human immunodeficiency virus or HIV, causing AIDS.
Since the first record of HIV-1 in humans, this virus has mutated several times. The two main types present in humans have different animal origins. HIV-1 is closely related to viruses found in chimpanzees and gorillas (great apes), while HIV-2 is more closely related to viruses in sooty mangabeys (Old World monkeys) in West Africa.
We’re therefore dealing with at least two independent host jump events, and possibly many more. Decades after HIV-1 was identified and sequenced from humans, we are still no closer to a vaccine, and an estimated 32 million people (at the end of 2018) have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the pandemic.
Very little is known about the coronavirus – SARS-CoV-2 – that causes COVID-19, even though it isn’t the first time that a member of the coronavirus family has jumped from its natural animal host to humans. According to the National Foundation for Infection Diseases fact sheet, human coronaviruses were first identified in the 1960s. Seven coronaviruses that can infect humans have since been identified.
Initial ideas about SARS-CoV-2 were that it originated from two hosts – bats and later from pangolins. To date, the full genomes of more than 17,000 SARS-CoV-2 viruses have been sequenced, but the exact origin is still unknown.
This is important because to fully understand the properties of the virus, we need to know the animal host (so called patient zero). This information may be critical to developing vaccines.
It won’t be easy. There is a very real possibility that the origin of SARS-CoV-2 may be a bat. But they are difficult to work on, given their habits of nocturnality, flight, and roosting in places that are hard to access. And there’s a strong possibility that bat diversity is underestimated. This is a real problem given that viruses may be species-specific.
There are some simple steps that zoologists are following.
The first is to home in on data that we can collect easily but which will still provide relevant information.
One example is faeces. Defecation is near universal in the animal kingdom, and zoologists have been cashing in on the rich data that faeces can deliver. We collect, store and analyse faeces for parasite load, hormonal data and DNA, relating these data to the health, behaviour and social structures of species.
But this source of information can be mined for much more by, for example, taking advantage of advances in metagenomic sequencing. This means we can now use faeces – properly stored and prepared – to identify entire viromes in the wildlife hosts, enabling us to proactively identify potential zoonotic viruses.
This requires zoologists to make connections through linkages with virology and medical laboratories to provide multidisciplinary perspectives.
Another rich area that we can use more extensively is the massive volume of animal movement data. It has spawned a proliferation of websitesdedicated to the sharing of GPS points tracking everything from ants to elephants, often using animal collars that transmit location signals. We understand that animal movement patterns can affect disease outbreaks and spillovers to humans; can’t we use these resources more proactively?
It’s vital for zoologists to collaborate with social scientists too, to understand human interaction with wildlife better. Ultimately, the jumps from animal to human are driven by us, and our behaviour. We can – and should – use the existing connections that many zoologists have with local communities to do more than reduce human-wildlife conflict.
This information provides rich pickings for zoologists as we battle to unravel the latest mysteries of what happens within species and between species.