Tag Archives: Human health

Tropical deforestation releases deadly infections

Brazil’s burning forests are bad news for the global climate. Now scientists say the trees harbour deadly infections too.

SÃO PAULO, 29 April, 2020 − As forest destruction continues unabated in Brazil, scientists are alarmed that, as well as spurring climate change, it may unleash new and deadly infections on humankind.

There is growing awareness that large-scale tropical deforestation, as in the Amazon, not only brings disastrous consequences for the climate, but releases new diseases like Covid-19 by enabling infections to pass from wild animals to human beings.

As one well-known Amazon scientist, biologist Philip Fearnside, puts it: “Amazon deforestation facilitates transmission both of new diseases and of old ones like malaria.

“The connection between deforestation and infectious diseases is just one more impact of deforestation, added to impacts of losing both Amazonia’s biodiversity and the forest’s vital climate functions in avoiding global warming and in recycling water.”

He is one of the co-authors of a paper by a team led by Joel Henrique Ellwanger on the impacts of Amazon deforestation on infectious diseases and public health, which has just been published in the Annals of the Brazilian Academy.

Dr Fearnside adds: “Many ‘new’ human diseases originate from pathogens transferred from wild animals, as occurred with the Covid-19 coronavirus. Amazonia contains a vast number of animal species and their associated pathogens with the potential to be transferred to humans.”

No surprise

The warnings are not new. Ana Lúcia Tourinho, with a Ph.D in ecology at the Federal University of Mato Grosso (UFMT), interviewed by Deutsche Welle, said: “For at least two decades scientists have repeated the warning: as populations advance on the forests, the risk grows of micro-organisms – up till then in equilibrium – migrating to humans and causing victims.

“That is why news of the propagation of the new coronavirus detected in China, which has spread throughout the world, was not a surprise.

“When a vírus which is not part of our evolutionary history leaves its natural host and enters our body it brings chaos”, she said.

Isolated and in equilibrium with their habitats, like dense forests, this sort of vírus would not be a threat to humans. The problem comes when this natural reservoir is destroyed and occupied (by other species).

Scientific studies published years before the present pandemic already showed the connection between the loss of forest, proliferation of bats in the degraded areas, and the coronavirus.

One example is the study by Dr Aneta Afelt, a researcher at the University of Warsaw, who concluded that the high rates of forest destruction in the last 40 years in Asia were an indication that the next serious infectious disease could come from there.

“For at least two decades scientists have repeated the warning: as populations advance on the forests, the risk grows of micro-organisms migrating to humans”

To reach this conclusion, she followed the trail of previous pandemics triggered by other coronaviruses like Sars in 2002 and 2003, and Mers in 2012.

“Because it’s one of the regions where population growth is most intense, where sanitary conditions remain bad and where the rate of deforestation is high, south-east Asia has all the conditions for becoming the place where infectious diseases emerge or re-emerge”, she wrote in 2018.

If destruction of the Amazon continues at the present accelerated pace, Dr Tourinho says, and it is turned into an area of savannah, “we cannot imagine what might come out of there in terms of diseases.”

The relationship between deforestation and the increase of diseases in the Amazon has been studied by Brazil’s Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA).

A 2015 survey in 773 Amazon towns showed that for each 1% of forest destroyed, malaria cases increased by 23%. The incidence of leishmaniasis, a disease spread by the bite of sand flies, which causes skin sores, disfigurement and can kill, also increased.

Since Jair Bolsonaro, an extreme right-wing climate denier, became president of Brazil in January 2019, the rate of deforestation, followed by forest fires, has exploded.

Officially-sanctioned illegality

This year the Institute of People and the Environment of the Amazon (Imazon)’s deforestation alert system (SAD) reports that an area of 254 sq km in the Amazon region was deforested in March, a increase of 279% over the same month last year.

This is even more alarming because traditionally deforestation begins in June, at the end of the rainy season. This year it has begun three months earlier.

The illegal clearing of the forest, much of it in indigenous reserves or conservation areas, by land grabbers, for cattle, soy, and logging projects, and by miners panning for gold, has been openly encouraged by Bolsonaro and his so-called Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles.

The Amazon Council set up by the president to coordinate action in the region does not include a single scientist, environmentalist or Amazon researcher, or even any experts from the government agencies for the environment and indigenous affairs, Ibama and Funai.

Instead, all its members are officers of the armed forces or the police. The likelihood that it will do anything serious to stop deforestation is zero.

Yet the destruction of the Amazon is a disaster not only for the world’s climate but also for its health, and Brazil is set to become one of the worst-affected countries. Climate News Network

Brazil’s burning forests are bad news for the global climate. Now scientists say the trees harbour deadly infections too.

SÃO PAULO, 29 April, 2020 − As forest destruction continues unabated in Brazil, scientists are alarmed that, as well as spurring climate change, it may unleash new and deadly infections on humankind.

There is growing awareness that large-scale tropical deforestation, as in the Amazon, not only brings disastrous consequences for the climate, but releases new diseases like Covid-19 by enabling infections to pass from wild animals to human beings.

As one well-known Amazon scientist, biologist Philip Fearnside, puts it: “Amazon deforestation facilitates transmission both of new diseases and of old ones like malaria.

“The connection between deforestation and infectious diseases is just one more impact of deforestation, added to impacts of losing both Amazonia’s biodiversity and the forest’s vital climate functions in avoiding global warming and in recycling water.”

He is one of the co-authors of a paper by a team led by Joel Henrique Ellwanger on the impacts of Amazon deforestation on infectious diseases and public health, which has just been published in the Annals of the Brazilian Academy.

Dr Fearnside adds: “Many ‘new’ human diseases originate from pathogens transferred from wild animals, as occurred with the Covid-19 coronavirus. Amazonia contains a vast number of animal species and their associated pathogens with the potential to be transferred to humans.”

No surprise

The warnings are not new. Ana Lúcia Tourinho, with a Ph.D in ecology at the Federal University of Mato Grosso (UFMT), interviewed by Deutsche Welle, said: “For at least two decades scientists have repeated the warning: as populations advance on the forests, the risk grows of micro-organisms – up till then in equilibrium – migrating to humans and causing victims.

“That is why news of the propagation of the new coronavirus detected in China, which has spread throughout the world, was not a surprise.

“When a vírus which is not part of our evolutionary history leaves its natural host and enters our body it brings chaos”, she said.

Isolated and in equilibrium with their habitats, like dense forests, this sort of vírus would not be a threat to humans. The problem comes when this natural reservoir is destroyed and occupied (by other species).

Scientific studies published years before the present pandemic already showed the connection between the loss of forest, proliferation of bats in the degraded areas, and the coronavirus.

One example is the study by Dr Aneta Afelt, a researcher at the University of Warsaw, who concluded that the high rates of forest destruction in the last 40 years in Asia were an indication that the next serious infectious disease could come from there.

“For at least two decades scientists have repeated the warning: as populations advance on the forests, the risk grows of micro-organisms migrating to humans”

To reach this conclusion, she followed the trail of previous pandemics triggered by other coronaviruses like Sars in 2002 and 2003, and Mers in 2012.

“Because it’s one of the regions where population growth is most intense, where sanitary conditions remain bad and where the rate of deforestation is high, south-east Asia has all the conditions for becoming the place where infectious diseases emerge or re-emerge”, she wrote in 2018.

If destruction of the Amazon continues at the present accelerated pace, Dr Tourinho says, and it is turned into an area of savannah, “we cannot imagine what might come out of there in terms of diseases.”

The relationship between deforestation and the increase of diseases in the Amazon has been studied by Brazil’s Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA).

A 2015 survey in 773 Amazon towns showed that for each 1% of forest destroyed, malaria cases increased by 23%. The incidence of leishmaniasis, a disease spread by the bite of sand flies, which causes skin sores, disfigurement and can kill, also increased.

Since Jair Bolsonaro, an extreme right-wing climate denier, became president of Brazil in January 2019, the rate of deforestation, followed by forest fires, has exploded.

Officially-sanctioned illegality

This year the Institute of People and the Environment of the Amazon (Imazon)’s deforestation alert system (SAD) reports that an area of 254 sq km in the Amazon region was deforested in March, a increase of 279% over the same month last year.

This is even more alarming because traditionally deforestation begins in June, at the end of the rainy season. This year it has begun three months earlier.

The illegal clearing of the forest, much of it in indigenous reserves or conservation areas, by land grabbers, for cattle, soy, and logging projects, and by miners panning for gold, has been openly encouraged by Bolsonaro and his so-called Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles.

The Amazon Council set up by the president to coordinate action in the region does not include a single scientist, environmentalist or Amazon researcher, or even any experts from the government agencies for the environment and indigenous affairs, Ibama and Funai.

Instead, all its members are officers of the armed forces or the police. The likelihood that it will do anything serious to stop deforestation is zero.

Yet the destruction of the Amazon is a disaster not only for the world’s climate but also for its health, and Brazil is set to become one of the worst-affected countries. Climate News Network

Carbon dioxide pollution dulls the brain

Carbon dioxide pollution slows our thinking. It could get bad enough to stop some of us thinking our way out of danger.

LONDON, 27 April, 2020 – If humans go on burning ever-greater quantities of fossil fuels, then tomorrow’s children in badly-ventilated classrooms or workers in crowded offices could find their wits dulled: the predicted concentrations of carbon dioxide pollution by 2100 could reduce the ability to make decisions by 25%, and cut the capacity for complex strategic thinking by as much as half.

That is, global warming driven by greenhouse gas emissions wouldn’t just be bad for the planet and its oceans: it would also make Homo sapiens measurably less sapient.

Although outdoor CO2 levels could more than triple – and at 930 parts per million (ppm), this would be far higher than humans have ever experienced – concentrations in enclosed spaces could rise much higher.

Research on seamen aboard submarines and in astronaut tests have confirmed that CO2 builds up in confined spaces, to limit the supply of oxygen to the brain. As this happens, people in such conditions have problems responding to any stimulus or even recognising a threat.

City atmospheres normally have higher carbon dioxide concentrations than in the countryside. And in poorly-ventilated city buildings, higher carbon dioxide levels could begin to limit human potential.

Direct effect

“It’s amazing how high CO2 levels get in enclosed spaces,” said Kris Karnauskas, of the University of Colorado, Boulder and the author of a new study in the journal Geohealth.

“It affects everybody – from little kids packed into classrooms to scientists, business people and decision makers, to regular folks in their houses and apartments.”

Other researchers have repeatedly warned that any steps to reduce emissions would more than pay off in terms of advancing human health and wealth, and that conversely expanding fossil fuel emissions could only increase damaging atmospheric pollution, along with potentially life-threatening extremes of summer heat.

But these are indirect effects of carbon dioxide concentration: Dr Karnauskas and his colleagues were more interested in a direct effect.

They report that they looked simply at climate scenarios, including the notorious business-as-usual prediction in which humans go on destroying forests, burning coal and oil, and making cement to build ever-expanding cities.

“It’s amazing how high CO2 levels get in enclosed spaces. It affects everybody – from little kids to scientists, business people and decision makers, to regular folks in their houses and apartments”

In this scenario, carbon dioxide concentrations – at around 280 ppm for most of human history, but already past the 400ppm mark – will rise to 930ppm by the end of the century.

If that happens, then indoor concentrations could quickly reach 1400ppm. And this could, on some research findings, begin to compromise what psychologists call high-level cognitive domains. So basic decision-making ability could falter by a quarter, and concentration on complex problems by 50%.

Quite literally, carbon dioxide build-up could reduce the capacity to think clearly. Such an outcome is far from certain, and the Geohealth researchers recognise this.

“This is a complex problem, and our study is at the beginning,” said Dr Karnauskas. “It’s not just a matter of predicting global outdoor CO2 levels. It’s going from global background emissions, to concentrations in the urban environment, to the indoor concentrations and finally the resulting human impact.

“We need even broader, interdisciplinary teams of researchers to explore this.” – Climate News Network

Carbon dioxide pollution slows our thinking. It could get bad enough to stop some of us thinking our way out of danger.

LONDON, 27 April, 2020 – If humans go on burning ever-greater quantities of fossil fuels, then tomorrow’s children in badly-ventilated classrooms or workers in crowded offices could find their wits dulled: the predicted concentrations of carbon dioxide pollution by 2100 could reduce the ability to make decisions by 25%, and cut the capacity for complex strategic thinking by as much as half.

That is, global warming driven by greenhouse gas emissions wouldn’t just be bad for the planet and its oceans: it would also make Homo sapiens measurably less sapient.

Although outdoor CO2 levels could more than triple – and at 930 parts per million (ppm), this would be far higher than humans have ever experienced – concentrations in enclosed spaces could rise much higher.

Research on seamen aboard submarines and in astronaut tests have confirmed that CO2 builds up in confined spaces, to limit the supply of oxygen to the brain. As this happens, people in such conditions have problems responding to any stimulus or even recognising a threat.

City atmospheres normally have higher carbon dioxide concentrations than in the countryside. And in poorly-ventilated city buildings, higher carbon dioxide levels could begin to limit human potential.

Direct effect

“It’s amazing how high CO2 levels get in enclosed spaces,” said Kris Karnauskas, of the University of Colorado, Boulder and the author of a new study in the journal Geohealth.

“It affects everybody – from little kids packed into classrooms to scientists, business people and decision makers, to regular folks in their houses and apartments.”

Other researchers have repeatedly warned that any steps to reduce emissions would more than pay off in terms of advancing human health and wealth, and that conversely expanding fossil fuel emissions could only increase damaging atmospheric pollution, along with potentially life-threatening extremes of summer heat.

But these are indirect effects of carbon dioxide concentration: Dr Karnauskas and his colleagues were more interested in a direct effect.

They report that they looked simply at climate scenarios, including the notorious business-as-usual prediction in which humans go on destroying forests, burning coal and oil, and making cement to build ever-expanding cities.

“It’s amazing how high CO2 levels get in enclosed spaces. It affects everybody – from little kids to scientists, business people and decision makers, to regular folks in their houses and apartments”

In this scenario, carbon dioxide concentrations – at around 280 ppm for most of human history, but already past the 400ppm mark – will rise to 930ppm by the end of the century.

If that happens, then indoor concentrations could quickly reach 1400ppm. And this could, on some research findings, begin to compromise what psychologists call high-level cognitive domains. So basic decision-making ability could falter by a quarter, and concentration on complex problems by 50%.

Quite literally, carbon dioxide build-up could reduce the capacity to think clearly. Such an outcome is far from certain, and the Geohealth researchers recognise this.

“This is a complex problem, and our study is at the beginning,” said Dr Karnauskas. “It’s not just a matter of predicting global outdoor CO2 levels. It’s going from global background emissions, to concentrations in the urban environment, to the indoor concentrations and finally the resulting human impact.

“We need even broader, interdisciplinary teams of researchers to explore this.” – Climate News Network

London’s Kew Gardens teach respect for nature

This story originally appeared on CBS News, and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

 

Kew Gardens in London are a cherished corner of the UK capital − with a life-giving lesson for humanity.

LONDON, 26 April, 2020 − Kew Gardens more formally the United Kingdom’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London have been a place of reflection and natural refuge for about 250 years, though now they sit empty because of the country’s coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

On April 22, as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Kew Gardens’ director Richard Deverell warned that more “fundamental challenges” could lie ahead for humankind “unless we start to treat the natural world better.”

“It’s exceptionally beautiful, but it’s tragic to see these beautiful gardens, 330 acres here at Kew − a world heritage site − to see them empty,” he told CBS News’ Mark Phillips.

Deverell, who lives on the property, said he “hopes” the current situation could help people understand the importance of respecting nature.

“We’ve got a situation today where four and half billion people are in lockdown, that’s extraordinary,” he said. “So I hope, if nothing else, this Covid experience has given us a dose of humility… we are just one species of many, many millions.”

He added that we “need to play our role” alongside Earth’s other species “in a responsible way.”

“I hope, if nothing else, this Covid experience has given us a dose of humility… we are just one species of many, many millions”

“And I hope too, that we’ll realise that actually the cost of pre-empting a problem, of mitigating it, is a fraction of the cost of dealing with it when it engulfs you,” he said. “If you abuse the natural world, bad things happen, including bad things to people.”

Researchers at the gardens are already working on these mitigation efforts. With new specimens arriving from all over the world, scientists are studying ways to help plants cope with a warming globe.

Among other projects, researchers are studying how to deal with coffee beans that are not getting enough rain and getting too much sunshine. The team is working to find varieties that are more tolerant to the changing conditions.

“Perhaps some have greater heat tolerance or aridity tolerance that can be bred into the commercial crop to safeguard future supplies of coffee,” Deverell explained.

He highlighted the importance of keeping nature safe and intact, not just for the natural world, but for humanity itself.

“At the simplest level, of course, plants provide us with oxygen,” he said. “About a quarter of all cancer medicines derive from plants and fungi, so they deliver many, many beneficial things to humans.”

This story originally appeared on CBS News, and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

 

Kew Gardens in London are a cherished corner of the UK capital − with a life-giving lesson for humanity.

LONDON, 26 April, 2020 − Kew Gardens more formally the United Kingdom’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London have been a place of reflection and natural refuge for about 250 years, though now they sit empty because of the country’s coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

On April 22, as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Kew Gardens’ director Richard Deverell warned that more “fundamental challenges” could lie ahead for humankind “unless we start to treat the natural world better.”

“It’s exceptionally beautiful, but it’s tragic to see these beautiful gardens, 330 acres here at Kew − a world heritage site − to see them empty,” he told CBS News’ Mark Phillips.

Deverell, who lives on the property, said he “hopes” the current situation could help people understand the importance of respecting nature.

“We’ve got a situation today where four and half billion people are in lockdown, that’s extraordinary,” he said. “So I hope, if nothing else, this Covid experience has given us a dose of humility… we are just one species of many, many millions.”

He added that we “need to play our role” alongside Earth’s other species “in a responsible way.”

“I hope, if nothing else, this Covid experience has given us a dose of humility… we are just one species of many, many millions”

“And I hope too, that we’ll realise that actually the cost of pre-empting a problem, of mitigating it, is a fraction of the cost of dealing with it when it engulfs you,” he said. “If you abuse the natural world, bad things happen, including bad things to people.”

Researchers at the gardens are already working on these mitigation efforts. With new specimens arriving from all over the world, scientists are studying ways to help plants cope with a warming globe.

Among other projects, researchers are studying how to deal with coffee beans that are not getting enough rain and getting too much sunshine. The team is working to find varieties that are more tolerant to the changing conditions.

“Perhaps some have greater heat tolerance or aridity tolerance that can be bred into the commercial crop to safeguard future supplies of coffee,” Deverell explained.

He highlighted the importance of keeping nature safe and intact, not just for the natural world, but for humanity itself.

“At the simplest level, of course, plants provide us with oxygen,” he said. “About a quarter of all cancer medicines derive from plants and fungi, so they deliver many, many beneficial things to humans.”

Covid-19 severity ‘linked to higher air pollution’

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Scientists in the UK say they have found evidence suggesting air pollution levels in England are linked to Covid-19 severity.

LONDON, 21 April, 2020 − In research which could, if confirmed by further studies, have fundamental implications not only for health but also for the climate crisis, scientists at the University of Cambridge say they have found an association between living in parts of England with high levels of air pollution and Covid-19 severity.

Because of the urgent need to share information relating to the pandemic, the researchers say, they have decided to publish their report on medRxiv, the preprint server for health sciences, even though it has not yet been peer-reviewed. However, they say, this preliminary data is supported by that from other countries.

The initial symptoms of Covid-19 include fever, but do not always include breathing difficulties. But, the researchers point out, some patients do go on to develop very serious respiratory problems. Although most experience only mild illness, around a quarter of patients admitted to hospital need intensive care treatment because of viral pneumonia with respiratory complications.

Research suggests that this probably stems from an overactive immune response, they say − but it is not clear why some patients are at greater risk of severe disease.

Previous studies have suggested that people over the age of 60 or with underlying health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease and cancer, are at highest risk of severe disease or death.

Long-term exposure to air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides and ground-level ozone from car exhaust fumes or burning fossil fuels is a known risk factor for these health conditions.

Higher infection risk

Such pollutants can also cause a persistent inflammatory response and increase the risk of infection by viruses that target the respiratory tract.

In this study the researchers, from the Medical Research Council toxicology unit at Cambridge, report an association between certain air pollutants and Covid-19 in several parts of England.

They analysed the data on total Covid-19 cases and deaths, against the levels of three major air pollutants, collected during 2018 and 2019, when no Covid-19 case had been reported.

Their study used publicly available data from seven regions in England, where a minimum of 2,000 coronavirus infections and 200 deaths have been reported from from February to 8 April 2020.

The largest number of Covid deaths in England has been recorded across London and the Midlands; previous studies have shown that the annual average of nitrogen dioxide concentrations are largest in these two regions, both of which have heavy levels of traffic and industrial concentrations.

When the team compared the annual average of daily nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide levels to the total number of Covid-19 cases in each region, they found a positive correlation – in other words, the higher the pollutant levels, the greater the number of cases and deaths.

“This highlights the importance of reducing air pollution for the protection of human health, both in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond”

Both pollutants result from a chemical reaction between nitrogen and oxygen during the combustion of fossil fuels, and so they represent a significant source of air pollution in areas with high road traffic.

Marco Travaglio, a PhD student at the MRC Toxicology Unit, said: “Our results provide the first evidence that SARS-CoV-2 case fatality is associated with increased nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide levels in England.

“London, the Midlands and the northwest [of England] show the largest concentration of these air pollutants, with southern regions displaying the lowest levels in the country, and the number of Covid-19 deaths follows a similar trend.”

The team found a negative association between ambient ground levels of ozone and the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in each region – in other words, reduced ozone levels are associated with a greater number of cases and deaths.

Ozone is a secondary by-product of traffic-related air pollution and is generated through sunlight-driven reactions between motor-vehicle emissions and volatile organic compounds. The lowest levels of ozone were found in highly urbanised regions, such as London or the Midlands.

This is likely to be due to the highly reactive nature of ozone, which results in the gas being converted to other chemicals, a phenomenon previously reported for areas of heavy traffic.

Supporting data

Dr Miguel Martins, senior author of the study, said: “Our study adds to growing evidence from northern Italy and the USA that high levels of air pollution are linked to deadlier cases of Covid-19.

“This is something we saw during the previous SARS outbreak back in 2003, where long-term exposure to air pollutants had a detrimental effect on the prognosis of SARS patients in China.

“This highlights the importance of reducing air pollution for the protection of human health, both in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.”

The researchers say their findings show only a correlation, and that further research is needed to confirm that air pollution makes Covid-19 worse.

So their research is suitably tentative and will rightly be treated with caution by other scientists. It does however pose a range of questions, which include:

•are the UK’s air pollution standards adequate?

•what can be done to protect children, the elderly and other specially vulnerable people?

•what further protection is available for everyone who lives in areas with toxic air?

•what are the implications for climate and energy policy?

•what are the geopolitical implications of the suggested Covid-19/air pollution association?

Few of these preliminary questions are likely to receive an immediate answer. − Climate News Network

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Scientists in the UK say they have found evidence suggesting air pollution levels in England are linked to Covid-19 severity.

LONDON, 21 April, 2020 − In research which could, if confirmed by further studies, have fundamental implications not only for health but also for the climate crisis, scientists at the University of Cambridge say they have found an association between living in parts of England with high levels of air pollution and Covid-19 severity.

Because of the urgent need to share information relating to the pandemic, the researchers say, they have decided to publish their report on medRxiv, the preprint server for health sciences, even though it has not yet been peer-reviewed. However, they say, this preliminary data is supported by that from other countries.

The initial symptoms of Covid-19 include fever, but do not always include breathing difficulties. But, the researchers point out, some patients do go on to develop very serious respiratory problems. Although most experience only mild illness, around a quarter of patients admitted to hospital need intensive care treatment because of viral pneumonia with respiratory complications.

Research suggests that this probably stems from an overactive immune response, they say − but it is not clear why some patients are at greater risk of severe disease.

Previous studies have suggested that people over the age of 60 or with underlying health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease and cancer, are at highest risk of severe disease or death.

Long-term exposure to air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides and ground-level ozone from car exhaust fumes or burning fossil fuels is a known risk factor for these health conditions.

Higher infection risk

Such pollutants can also cause a persistent inflammatory response and increase the risk of infection by viruses that target the respiratory tract.

In this study the researchers, from the Medical Research Council toxicology unit at Cambridge, report an association between certain air pollutants and Covid-19 in several parts of England.

They analysed the data on total Covid-19 cases and deaths, against the levels of three major air pollutants, collected during 2018 and 2019, when no Covid-19 case had been reported.

Their study used publicly available data from seven regions in England, where a minimum of 2,000 coronavirus infections and 200 deaths have been reported from from February to 8 April 2020.

The largest number of Covid deaths in England has been recorded across London and the Midlands; previous studies have shown that the annual average of nitrogen dioxide concentrations are largest in these two regions, both of which have heavy levels of traffic and industrial concentrations.

When the team compared the annual average of daily nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide levels to the total number of Covid-19 cases in each region, they found a positive correlation – in other words, the higher the pollutant levels, the greater the number of cases and deaths.

“This highlights the importance of reducing air pollution for the protection of human health, both in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond”

Both pollutants result from a chemical reaction between nitrogen and oxygen during the combustion of fossil fuels, and so they represent a significant source of air pollution in areas with high road traffic.

Marco Travaglio, a PhD student at the MRC Toxicology Unit, said: “Our results provide the first evidence that SARS-CoV-2 case fatality is associated with increased nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide levels in England.

“London, the Midlands and the northwest [of England] show the largest concentration of these air pollutants, with southern regions displaying the lowest levels in the country, and the number of Covid-19 deaths follows a similar trend.”

The team found a negative association between ambient ground levels of ozone and the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in each region – in other words, reduced ozone levels are associated with a greater number of cases and deaths.

Ozone is a secondary by-product of traffic-related air pollution and is generated through sunlight-driven reactions between motor-vehicle emissions and volatile organic compounds. The lowest levels of ozone were found in highly urbanised regions, such as London or the Midlands.

This is likely to be due to the highly reactive nature of ozone, which results in the gas being converted to other chemicals, a phenomenon previously reported for areas of heavy traffic.

Supporting data

Dr Miguel Martins, senior author of the study, said: “Our study adds to growing evidence from northern Italy and the USA that high levels of air pollution are linked to deadlier cases of Covid-19.

“This is something we saw during the previous SARS outbreak back in 2003, where long-term exposure to air pollutants had a detrimental effect on the prognosis of SARS patients in China.

“This highlights the importance of reducing air pollution for the protection of human health, both in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.”

The researchers say their findings show only a correlation, and that further research is needed to confirm that air pollution makes Covid-19 worse.

So their research is suitably tentative and will rightly be treated with caution by other scientists. It does however pose a range of questions, which include:

•are the UK’s air pollution standards adequate?

•what can be done to protect children, the elderly and other specially vulnerable people?

•what further protection is available for everyone who lives in areas with toxic air?

•what are the implications for climate and energy policy?

•what are the geopolitical implications of the suggested Covid-19/air pollution association?

Few of these preliminary questions are likely to receive an immediate answer. − Climate News Network

Halve the farmland, save nature, feed the world

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

If we farm efficiently, scientists say, we can cut climate change, slow extinction and feed the world even as it asks for more.

LONDON, 21 April, 2020 – Forget about organic farming: get the best out of the best cropland, return the rest to nature and still feed the world. It could work, say researchers.

Once again, scientists have demonstrated that humans could restore roughly half the planet as a natural home for all the other wild things, while at the same time feeding a growing population and limiting climate change.

That doesn’t mean it will happen, or could be made to happen easily. But it does yet again address one of the enduring challenges of population growth and the potentially devastating loss of the biodiversity upon which all individual species – humans more than most – depend to survive.

The answer? Simply to farm more efficiently and more intensively, to maximise the yield from those tracts of land most suitable for crops, and let nature reclaim the no-longer so productive hectares.

Even more effective would be to release as much land as possible in those regions that ecologists and biologists like to call “biodiversity hotspots”, among them the forests where concentrations of species are at their peak.

European researchers argue, in a study in the journal Nature Sustainability, that as less land was cultivated, but more intensively, the greenhouse gas emissions from farming would be reduced: so too would water use.

“Cropland expansion is not inevitable and there is significant potential for improving present land use efficiency”

“The main questions we wanted to address were how much cropland could be spared if attainable crop yields were achieved globally and crops were grown where they are most productive,” said Christian Folberth, a scientist with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, who led the study.

“In addition, we wanted to determine what the implications would be for other factors related to the agricultural sector, including fertiliser and irrigation water requirements, greenhouse gas emissions, carbon sequestration potential, and wildlife habitat for threatened species.”

The problem is enormous, and enormously complex. Cropland farming alone – forget about methane from cattle and sheep – accounts for 5% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. Worldwide, about 70% of all the freshwater taken from rivers and aquifers goes into irrigation.

Human populations continue to soar, while cities continue to expand  across the countryside. By the end of this century, there could be more than 9bn people to be fed.

Global heating driven by fossil fuel investment continues to increase, and this in turn threatens to diminish harvest yields across a wide range of crops, along with the nutritive value of the staples themselves.

Nature under threat

At the same time, both climate change driven by global warming and the expansion of the cities and the surrounding farmlands continue to amplify the threat to natural habitats and the millions of species – many yet to be identified and named by science – that depend upon them.

And this in turn poses a threat to human economies and even human life: almost every resource – antibiotic medicines and drugs, food, waste disposal, fabrics, building materials and even fresh air and water – evolved in undisturbed ecosystems long before Homo sapiens arrived, and the services each element provides depend ultimately on the survival of those ecosystems.

So the challenge is to restore and return to nature around half the land humans already use, while at the same time feeding what could be an additional 2bn people, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions but still sustaining development in the poorest nations.

Dr Folberth and his colleagues from Slovakia, France, Belgium, Spain and the UK are not the first to argue that it can be done, and not just by changing the planetary lunch menu.

The scientists looked at the data for 16 major crop species around the world to calculate that at least in theory – with careful use of the right crops on the most suitable soils, and with high fertiliser use – about half of the present cropland now cultivated could still deliver the present output.

That is, the land humans occupy is not being managed efficiently. If it were, the other half could be returned to wilderness, and conserved as natural forest, grassland or wetland.

Climate benefits

If humans then thought about how best to slow biodiversity loss, they would do almost as well by abandoning farmland in those places where there was the greatest concentration of wild things – tropical rain forests, estuary floodplains and mangrove swamps, for instance. And just returning 20% of farmland to nature everywhere else would still reduce human farmland use by 40%.

In return, fertiliser use would remain about the same, but greenhouse gas emissions and water use would fall, while more land would become free to sequester atmospheric carbon.

There would be costs – nitrogen pollution would go up in some places, and many rural farmers would become even poorer – so more thinking needs to be done. The point the European researchers want to make is that, in principle, it should be possible to feed people, abandon farmland to the natural world and reduce emissions all at the same time.

“It shows that cropland expansion is not inevitable and there is significant potential for improving present land use efficiency,” said Michael Obersteiner, another author, now at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford.

“If the right policies are implemented, measures such as improved production technologies can be just as effective as demand-side measures like dietary changes. However, in all cases, such a process would need to be steered by policies to avoid unwanted outcomes.” – Climate News Network

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

If we farm efficiently, scientists say, we can cut climate change, slow extinction and feed the world even as it asks for more.

LONDON, 21 April, 2020 – Forget about organic farming: get the best out of the best cropland, return the rest to nature and still feed the world. It could work, say researchers.

Once again, scientists have demonstrated that humans could restore roughly half the planet as a natural home for all the other wild things, while at the same time feeding a growing population and limiting climate change.

That doesn’t mean it will happen, or could be made to happen easily. But it does yet again address one of the enduring challenges of population growth and the potentially devastating loss of the biodiversity upon which all individual species – humans more than most – depend to survive.

The answer? Simply to farm more efficiently and more intensively, to maximise the yield from those tracts of land most suitable for crops, and let nature reclaim the no-longer so productive hectares.

Even more effective would be to release as much land as possible in those regions that ecologists and biologists like to call “biodiversity hotspots”, among them the forests where concentrations of species are at their peak.

European researchers argue, in a study in the journal Nature Sustainability, that as less land was cultivated, but more intensively, the greenhouse gas emissions from farming would be reduced: so too would water use.

“Cropland expansion is not inevitable and there is significant potential for improving present land use efficiency”

“The main questions we wanted to address were how much cropland could be spared if attainable crop yields were achieved globally and crops were grown where they are most productive,” said Christian Folberth, a scientist with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, who led the study.

“In addition, we wanted to determine what the implications would be for other factors related to the agricultural sector, including fertiliser and irrigation water requirements, greenhouse gas emissions, carbon sequestration potential, and wildlife habitat for threatened species.”

The problem is enormous, and enormously complex. Cropland farming alone – forget about methane from cattle and sheep – accounts for 5% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. Worldwide, about 70% of all the freshwater taken from rivers and aquifers goes into irrigation.

Human populations continue to soar, while cities continue to expand  across the countryside. By the end of this century, there could be more than 9bn people to be fed.

Global heating driven by fossil fuel investment continues to increase, and this in turn threatens to diminish harvest yields across a wide range of crops, along with the nutritive value of the staples themselves.

Nature under threat

At the same time, both climate change driven by global warming and the expansion of the cities and the surrounding farmlands continue to amplify the threat to natural habitats and the millions of species – many yet to be identified and named by science – that depend upon them.

And this in turn poses a threat to human economies and even human life: almost every resource – antibiotic medicines and drugs, food, waste disposal, fabrics, building materials and even fresh air and water – evolved in undisturbed ecosystems long before Homo sapiens arrived, and the services each element provides depend ultimately on the survival of those ecosystems.

So the challenge is to restore and return to nature around half the land humans already use, while at the same time feeding what could be an additional 2bn people, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions but still sustaining development in the poorest nations.

Dr Folberth and his colleagues from Slovakia, France, Belgium, Spain and the UK are not the first to argue that it can be done, and not just by changing the planetary lunch menu.

The scientists looked at the data for 16 major crop species around the world to calculate that at least in theory – with careful use of the right crops on the most suitable soils, and with high fertiliser use – about half of the present cropland now cultivated could still deliver the present output.

That is, the land humans occupy is not being managed efficiently. If it were, the other half could be returned to wilderness, and conserved as natural forest, grassland or wetland.

Climate benefits

If humans then thought about how best to slow biodiversity loss, they would do almost as well by abandoning farmland in those places where there was the greatest concentration of wild things – tropical rain forests, estuary floodplains and mangrove swamps, for instance. And just returning 20% of farmland to nature everywhere else would still reduce human farmland use by 40%.

In return, fertiliser use would remain about the same, but greenhouse gas emissions and water use would fall, while more land would become free to sequester atmospheric carbon.

There would be costs – nitrogen pollution would go up in some places, and many rural farmers would become even poorer – so more thinking needs to be done. The point the European researchers want to make is that, in principle, it should be possible to feed people, abandon farmland to the natural world and reduce emissions all at the same time.

“It shows that cropland expansion is not inevitable and there is significant potential for improving present land use efficiency,” said Michael Obersteiner, another author, now at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford.

“If the right policies are implemented, measures such as improved production technologies can be just as effective as demand-side measures like dietary changes. However, in all cases, such a process would need to be steered by policies to avoid unwanted outcomes.” – Climate News Network

Direct virus lessons we can learn as we go

Learning from pandemics is hard but vital. We need 1918’s virus lessons this time round to show us a better normal.

LONDON, 8 April, 2020 – What history knows as the 1918 ‘flu pandemic infected about a quarter of the world’s population at the time – around 500 million people – and left virus lessons for this generation, whether or not it’s learned them.

Thankfully, the 2020 coronavirus outbreak shows no sign yet of matching last century’s virulence. There are growing calls, though, for the world not just to get back to normal, but to turn this global horror into an opportunity to rebuild by finding a better normal to reclaim.

In late 2018 the Rapid Transition Alliance was launched with the intention of building a community to learn from moments of sudden change and to apply those lessons to the climate emergency.

Changes in the biosphere are happening faster than changes in human behaviour, so the question the Alliance asks is this: how do we match the speed and scale of social and economic change with the science – and what it is telling us to do?

It is now working with two other British organisations, the original Green New Deal group and Compass, the campaign that builds support for new ideas among social movements, decision-makers and political parties.

“Once people have seen what it is possible for a nation to do, and how fast it can do it, it is much harder for those in power to justify inaction, or wrong action”

In the first of several digital meetings the three have begun to sketch out a framework for how society can “learn as we go” from unprecedented events. They have identified five principles for a just recovery, which say in essence:

  • Health is the top priority, for all people, with no exceptions. That means resourcing health services everywhere and ensuring access for all.
  • Providing economic relief directly to the people is vital, particularly those marginalised in existing systems. Concentrate on people and workers and on short-term needs and long-term conditions.
  • Assistance directed at specific industries must be channelled to rescuing communities and workers, not shareholders or corporate executives, and never to corporations whose actions worsen the climate crisis.
  • The world needs to create resilience for future crises by creating millions of decent jobs that will help power a just transition for workers and communities to the zero-carbon future we need.
  • We must build solidarity and community across borders: do not empower authoritarians, do not use the crisis as an excuse to trample on human rights, civil liberties, and democracy.

An indication of the degree of international support for the five principles is available here.

Making things happen

The principles are already accepted by millions of people, but are no closer to reality, for all that. If they were, the climate crisis would be almost over. What can the three groups offer to make them happen?

The coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance is Andrew Simms, author of a summary of what the discussions have agreed so far. He told the Climate News Network: “Nobody can guarantee that things will turn out any certain way.

“But once people have seen what it is possible for a nation to do, and how fast it can do it, it is much harder for those in power to justify inaction, or wrong action.

“The current pandemic crisis is wreaking havoc on families, communities and whole economies. But it is also changing our ideas about what really matters to people and also what it is possible to do as a nation when faced with a great challenge.

“There is a new appreciation of key workers who provide the goods and services that a society really relies on – like health services and those in the food supply chain – but who typically lack recognition or are poorly paid.

Good-bye to inertia

“One of the greatest enemies in overcoming the climate emergency has been the sheer inertia of business-as-usual. Now there is a great sense of people taking stock of what is truly important.

“Vitally, when there is a fundamental threat to society, we have seen that financial resources can be mobilised. Fundamental change cannot happen without there being a consensus that it is both desirable and possible.

“The last few weeks have made visible underlying cracks in society, but also our ability to fix them. Once people have seen that, they are unlikely to settle for less.”

This first meeting spent some time talking practicalities, including how to protect wages and income. One example was the call by a member of Parliament for the introduction of a basic income scheme. Globally, the pandemic has prompted the United Nations to call for a worldwide ceasefire.

Overall, the summary says, greater consensus is emerging on how our economy and way of life relies on public not private interests, from health services to community aid groups, and that both local and national government have a vital enabling role on the need to improve the resilience of the economy at a national and local level.

Broadband before wheels

A radical reappraisal of transport came days after the meeting from the president of the UK’s Automobile Association (AA), Edmund King, who predicted a major shift in behaviour after the pandemic.

“People travelling up and down motorways just to hold meetings is inefficient, expensive and not good for the environment”, he said. “I think the use of road and rail and indeed bus will be reduced after this crisis.”

The AA, seen for years as a stalwart member of the roads lobby, said government funds for new transport infrastructure, including roads, might be better spent on improving broadband access to support home working.

The meeting agreed that the UK economy lacks a supportive town centre retail banking infrastructure with the capacity to administer a support scheme.

The build-up to the 2007-2008 financial crisis saw the evacuation of local banking services from the high street, and now the pandemic was making clear that the withering of local financial infrastructure in the UK must be reversed.

Universal and more mutual banking services are needed to build more resilient local economies, the three groups agreed. More progressive business models like social enterprises, which have direct community links, and the co-operative movement may help to provide answers. – Climate News Network

* * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

Learning from pandemics is hard but vital. We need 1918’s virus lessons this time round to show us a better normal.

LONDON, 8 April, 2020 – What history knows as the 1918 ‘flu pandemic infected about a quarter of the world’s population at the time – around 500 million people – and left virus lessons for this generation, whether or not it’s learned them.

Thankfully, the 2020 coronavirus outbreak shows no sign yet of matching last century’s virulence. There are growing calls, though, for the world not just to get back to normal, but to turn this global horror into an opportunity to rebuild by finding a better normal to reclaim.

In late 2018 the Rapid Transition Alliance was launched with the intention of building a community to learn from moments of sudden change and to apply those lessons to the climate emergency.

Changes in the biosphere are happening faster than changes in human behaviour, so the question the Alliance asks is this: how do we match the speed and scale of social and economic change with the science – and what it is telling us to do?

It is now working with two other British organisations, the original Green New Deal group and Compass, the campaign that builds support for new ideas among social movements, decision-makers and political parties.

“Once people have seen what it is possible for a nation to do, and how fast it can do it, it is much harder for those in power to justify inaction, or wrong action”

In the first of several digital meetings the three have begun to sketch out a framework for how society can “learn as we go” from unprecedented events. They have identified five principles for a just recovery, which say in essence:

  • Health is the top priority, for all people, with no exceptions. That means resourcing health services everywhere and ensuring access for all.
  • Providing economic relief directly to the people is vital, particularly those marginalised in existing systems. Concentrate on people and workers and on short-term needs and long-term conditions.
  • Assistance directed at specific industries must be channelled to rescuing communities and workers, not shareholders or corporate executives, and never to corporations whose actions worsen the climate crisis.
  • The world needs to create resilience for future crises by creating millions of decent jobs that will help power a just transition for workers and communities to the zero-carbon future we need.
  • We must build solidarity and community across borders: do not empower authoritarians, do not use the crisis as an excuse to trample on human rights, civil liberties, and democracy.

An indication of the degree of international support for the five principles is available here.

Making things happen

The principles are already accepted by millions of people, but are no closer to reality, for all that. If they were, the climate crisis would be almost over. What can the three groups offer to make them happen?

The coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance is Andrew Simms, author of a summary of what the discussions have agreed so far. He told the Climate News Network: “Nobody can guarantee that things will turn out any certain way.

“But once people have seen what it is possible for a nation to do, and how fast it can do it, it is much harder for those in power to justify inaction, or wrong action.

“The current pandemic crisis is wreaking havoc on families, communities and whole economies. But it is also changing our ideas about what really matters to people and also what it is possible to do as a nation when faced with a great challenge.

“There is a new appreciation of key workers who provide the goods and services that a society really relies on – like health services and those in the food supply chain – but who typically lack recognition or are poorly paid.

Good-bye to inertia

“One of the greatest enemies in overcoming the climate emergency has been the sheer inertia of business-as-usual. Now there is a great sense of people taking stock of what is truly important.

“Vitally, when there is a fundamental threat to society, we have seen that financial resources can be mobilised. Fundamental change cannot happen without there being a consensus that it is both desirable and possible.

“The last few weeks have made visible underlying cracks in society, but also our ability to fix them. Once people have seen that, they are unlikely to settle for less.”

This first meeting spent some time talking practicalities, including how to protect wages and income. One example was the call by a member of Parliament for the introduction of a basic income scheme. Globally, the pandemic has prompted the United Nations to call for a worldwide ceasefire.

Overall, the summary says, greater consensus is emerging on how our economy and way of life relies on public not private interests, from health services to community aid groups, and that both local and national government have a vital enabling role on the need to improve the resilience of the economy at a national and local level.

Broadband before wheels

A radical reappraisal of transport came days after the meeting from the president of the UK’s Automobile Association (AA), Edmund King, who predicted a major shift in behaviour after the pandemic.

“People travelling up and down motorways just to hold meetings is inefficient, expensive and not good for the environment”, he said. “I think the use of road and rail and indeed bus will be reduced after this crisis.”

The AA, seen for years as a stalwart member of the roads lobby, said government funds for new transport infrastructure, including roads, might be better spent on improving broadband access to support home working.

The meeting agreed that the UK economy lacks a supportive town centre retail banking infrastructure with the capacity to administer a support scheme.

The build-up to the 2007-2008 financial crisis saw the evacuation of local banking services from the high street, and now the pandemic was making clear that the withering of local financial infrastructure in the UK must be reversed.

Universal and more mutual banking services are needed to build more resilient local economies, the three groups agreed. More progressive business models like social enterprises, which have direct community links, and the co-operative movement may help to provide answers. – Climate News Network

* * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

Covid-19’s viral lessons for climate heating

In the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, Covid-19’s viral lessons offer a warning of what may lie ahead.

LONDON, 2 April, 2020 − There are some glimmers of hope discernible in the loss, confusion and misery that’s spreading worldwide, and one is that Covid-19’s viral lessons could help to equip us all to tackle the climate crisis that’s remorselessly building up.

A major side effect of the battle against the spread of the corona virus, for example, has been a significant reduction in the amount of climate-changing greenhouse gas being pumped into the atmosphere.

Power plants and factories in China and elsewhere have been shut down: the use of fossil fuels, particularly oil, has plummeted.

As a result of this reduced pollution, millions of people in cities and regions across the world are breathing fresher, cleaner air.

The epidemic has had other environmental consequences: residents of Venice in northern Italy say they have never seen such clear water in the city’s canals, mainly due to the dramatic drop in tourist numbers.

With several countries in lockdown, car and truck traffic no longer clogs up the roads and motorways.

“Covid 19 is a test of how the world copes with crisis. Climate change will present a much greater challenge”

Starved of passengers, many airlines have grounded planes. One of the big problems facing oil companies now is what to do with vast amounts of unsold jet fuel: some are resorting to storing it in tankers at sea.

Of course, whenever the virus is finally banished, industrial production could be ramped up again and fossil fuel emissions return to former levels.

But maybe, just maybe, some lessons are being learned as a result of the epidemic. One is obvious – that we are all in this together.

Covid-19, like climate change, knows no boundaries, respects no borders. It has become clear that nations cannot retreat to their bunkers and fight the virus alone. As with the battle against climate change, international action and cooperation are vital.

Another lesson is that science – painstaking analysis and the collection of data, both locally and at an international level – is essential if Covid-19 and other associated epidemics that might arise in the future are to be defeated.

Warnings ignored

Epidemiologists have constantly warned of the likelihood of the worldwide spread of a virus, saying it is not a case of if, but when. For the most part, they have been ignored.

In the same way, climate scientists have been warning for decades of the catastrophe threatened by global heating. Covid-19 shows how vital it is to listen to the science. Perhaps the epidemic will prompt a more urgent approach to climate change.

Covid-19 also reinforces the difficult-to-get-hold-of concept that nothing is normal any more. Suddenly the world has been turned into a very uncertain place. Behaviour which many of us have taken for granted, such as international travel, is, for now at least, no longer acceptable, or good for our health.

Scientists say climate change will mean even greater and more sustained adjustments to our lives. Rising seas will result in the displacement of millions of coastal dwellers. Floods and droughts will cause agricultural havoc and severe food shortages. People will have to adjust to a new – and constantly changing – reality.

Leadership and a clarity of policy – again, both at a national and international level – have been shown to be essential in fighting the coronavirus. After initial failings, China and South Korea moved to impose a strict and comprehensive regime to control the epidemic.

Specialists in those and several other countries have shared their experience and data with other nations.

‘Fantasy’ virus

Unfortunately, others − in particular Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil − have not acted in the same way, or shown a willingness to take strong, decisive action.

In the US, President Trump has in the past dismissed global warming as a hoax and withdrawn the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change. At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, the virus was dismissed by the White House in similar terms.

Though Trump has since adjusted his message, valuable time has been lost. As the infection rate and death toll rise, the World Health Organisation is warning that the US is now in danger of becoming the world epicentre of Covid-19.

In Brazil, Bolsonaro – he refuses to believe in climate change − describes Covid-19 as a fantasy, suggesting it’s all a plot by China to weaken the country’s economy. Opposition to Bolsonaro’s lack of action on the pandemic is growing.

Covid 19 is a test of how the world – and its leaders – copes with crisis. Climate change, rapidly galloping down the tracks, will present a much greater challenge. − Climate News Network

In the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, Covid-19’s viral lessons offer a warning of what may lie ahead.

LONDON, 2 April, 2020 − There are some glimmers of hope discernible in the loss, confusion and misery that’s spreading worldwide, and one is that Covid-19’s viral lessons could help to equip us all to tackle the climate crisis that’s remorselessly building up.

A major side effect of the battle against the spread of the corona virus, for example, has been a significant reduction in the amount of climate-changing greenhouse gas being pumped into the atmosphere.

Power plants and factories in China and elsewhere have been shut down: the use of fossil fuels, particularly oil, has plummeted.

As a result of this reduced pollution, millions of people in cities and regions across the world are breathing fresher, cleaner air.

The epidemic has had other environmental consequences: residents of Venice in northern Italy say they have never seen such clear water in the city’s canals, mainly due to the dramatic drop in tourist numbers.

With several countries in lockdown, car and truck traffic no longer clogs up the roads and motorways.

“Covid 19 is a test of how the world copes with crisis. Climate change will present a much greater challenge”

Starved of passengers, many airlines have grounded planes. One of the big problems facing oil companies now is what to do with vast amounts of unsold jet fuel: some are resorting to storing it in tankers at sea.

Of course, whenever the virus is finally banished, industrial production could be ramped up again and fossil fuel emissions return to former levels.

But maybe, just maybe, some lessons are being learned as a result of the epidemic. One is obvious – that we are all in this together.

Covid-19, like climate change, knows no boundaries, respects no borders. It has become clear that nations cannot retreat to their bunkers and fight the virus alone. As with the battle against climate change, international action and cooperation are vital.

Another lesson is that science – painstaking analysis and the collection of data, both locally and at an international level – is essential if Covid-19 and other associated epidemics that might arise in the future are to be defeated.

Warnings ignored

Epidemiologists have constantly warned of the likelihood of the worldwide spread of a virus, saying it is not a case of if, but when. For the most part, they have been ignored.

In the same way, climate scientists have been warning for decades of the catastrophe threatened by global heating. Covid-19 shows how vital it is to listen to the science. Perhaps the epidemic will prompt a more urgent approach to climate change.

Covid-19 also reinforces the difficult-to-get-hold-of concept that nothing is normal any more. Suddenly the world has been turned into a very uncertain place. Behaviour which many of us have taken for granted, such as international travel, is, for now at least, no longer acceptable, or good for our health.

Scientists say climate change will mean even greater and more sustained adjustments to our lives. Rising seas will result in the displacement of millions of coastal dwellers. Floods and droughts will cause agricultural havoc and severe food shortages. People will have to adjust to a new – and constantly changing – reality.

Leadership and a clarity of policy – again, both at a national and international level – have been shown to be essential in fighting the coronavirus. After initial failings, China and South Korea moved to impose a strict and comprehensive regime to control the epidemic.

Specialists in those and several other countries have shared their experience and data with other nations.

‘Fantasy’ virus

Unfortunately, others − in particular Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil − have not acted in the same way, or shown a willingness to take strong, decisive action.

In the US, President Trump has in the past dismissed global warming as a hoax and withdrawn the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change. At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, the virus was dismissed by the White House in similar terms.

Though Trump has since adjusted his message, valuable time has been lost. As the infection rate and death toll rise, the World Health Organisation is warning that the US is now in danger of becoming the world epicentre of Covid-19.

In Brazil, Bolsonaro – he refuses to believe in climate change − describes Covid-19 as a fantasy, suggesting it’s all a plot by China to weaken the country’s economy. Opposition to Bolsonaro’s lack of action on the pandemic is growing.

Covid 19 is a test of how the world – and its leaders – copes with crisis. Climate change, rapidly galloping down the tracks, will present a much greater challenge. − Climate News Network

Coal exit will benefit health, wealth and nature

Human economies still depend on hydrocarbon fuels. But there are ways to achieve a coal exit, cut emissions and protect health.

LONDON, 30 March, 2020 − A fast coal exit and a switch away from all fossil fuels will offer multiple global benefits. In almost all circumstances, electric cars will be more climate-friendly than petrol-driven machines, even when that electricity is generated by coal combustion.

And nations that so far rely on coal will save substantially on health costs and environmental damage if they close the pits and convert to renewable energy.

The making and use of concrete – a big source of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere – remains an obdurate source of global warming. But even so there are ways to cut the climate and health damage costs of cement and mortar by more than 40%.

Each of these three studies is a reminder that there is for the moment no way to stop all carbon emissions in human economies. But each also confirms that a switch away from fossil fuels continues to make economic sense.

Clear reduction

Almost one fourth of all the fossil fuel combustion emissions that threaten a climate crisis come from passenger road transport and household heating. It takes energy to manufacture an electric car, or a heat pump, and it takes energy to generate the electricity to make them function.

Dutch and British researchers report in the journal Nature Sustainability that they considered the challenge in 59 regions of the globe and found that in 53 of their studies the switch to electric meant a clear reduction in climate-damaging emissions.

By 2050, half of all cars on the road could be electric. This would cut global emissions by up to 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. This is about what Russia puts into the atmosphere now.

The switch from homes heated by gas, coal or oil to electric pumps could save 800 million tonnes. This is about the same as Germany’s current greenhouse gas emissions.

Mythical increase

Lifetime emissions from electric cars in Sweden and France − which already get most of their electricity from renewables or nuclear power − would be up to 70% lower than from petrol-driven cars, and 30% lower in the UK.

“The answer is clear: to reduce carbon emissions, we should choose electric cars and household heat pumps over fossil-fuel alternatives,” said Florian Knobloch, of Radboud University in the Netherlands and Cambridge in the UK.

“In other words, the idea that electric vehicles or electric heat pumps could increase emissions is a myth. We’ve seen a lot of discussion of this recently, with lots of disinformation going around. Here is a definitive study that can dispel those myths.”

The 53 regions in the study represent 95% of world transport and heating demand. The scientists took into account energy use from the production chain at the beginning of a car’s or a heating system’s life, and the waste processing at the end, to find that the only exceptions were in places like Poland, which is still heavily dependent on coal.

“We decided to comprehensively test the case for a global coal exit: does it add up, economically speaking? The short answer is: yes, by far”

In 2015, the world’s nations agreed at an historic Paris meeting to attempt to limit average planetary warming to “well below” 2°C by the century’s end. Right now, by 2100 global temperatures could rise by a catastrophic 3°C.

A new study in Nature Climate Change confirms that to get to the 2°C target it doesn’t just make climate sense to shut the mines and close down the coal-burning power stations: it would save money as well, just in terms of reducing the health hazards associated with pollution and the damage to ecosystems and the loss of wildlife.

“We’re well into the 21st century now and still rely heavily on burning coal, making it one of the biggest threats to our climate, our health and our environment.

“That’s why we decided to comprehensively test the case for a global coal exit: does it add up, economically speaking? The short answer is: yes, by far,” said Sebastian Rauner of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who led the study.

Concrete burden

And his colleague Gunnar Luderer added: “Benefits from reduced health and ecosystem impacts clearly overcompensate the direct economic costs of a coal exit – they amount to a net saving of about 1.5% of global economic output by 2050. That is, $370 (£300) for every human on Earth in 2050.”

Around 8% of all greenhouse gases come from the concrete industry: it too is a source of air pollution and environmental destruction. Cement has to be baked from stone, and aggregate has to be gathered, hauled and brought to building sites, and the two have to be mixed.

US researchers report in Nature Climate Change that they quantified the costs in terms of climate, death and illness from the industry and arrived at damages of about $335bn a year.

They looked at ways of cleaner combustion in kiln fuel, the more efficient use of mineral additions that might replace cement, and the applications of clean energy: all of them available now.

Neglect of health

Methods to capture and store carbon emissions from the process are not yet ready: these could reduce climate damage costs by 50% to 65%.

If manufacturers used a fuel that burned more efficiently, they could reduce health damages by 14%. A mix of already available methods could, together, reduce climate and health damage by 44%.

“There is a high emissions burden associated with the production of concrete because there is so much demand for it,” said Sabbie Miller of the University of California Davis, who led the study.

“We clearly care a great deal about greenhouse gas emissions. But we haven’t paid as much attention to health burdens, which are also driven in large part by this demand.” − Climate News Network

Human economies still depend on hydrocarbon fuels. But there are ways to achieve a coal exit, cut emissions and protect health.

LONDON, 30 March, 2020 − A fast coal exit and a switch away from all fossil fuels will offer multiple global benefits. In almost all circumstances, electric cars will be more climate-friendly than petrol-driven machines, even when that electricity is generated by coal combustion.

And nations that so far rely on coal will save substantially on health costs and environmental damage if they close the pits and convert to renewable energy.

The making and use of concrete – a big source of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere – remains an obdurate source of global warming. But even so there are ways to cut the climate and health damage costs of cement and mortar by more than 40%.

Each of these three studies is a reminder that there is for the moment no way to stop all carbon emissions in human economies. But each also confirms that a switch away from fossil fuels continues to make economic sense.

Clear reduction

Almost one fourth of all the fossil fuel combustion emissions that threaten a climate crisis come from passenger road transport and household heating. It takes energy to manufacture an electric car, or a heat pump, and it takes energy to generate the electricity to make them function.

Dutch and British researchers report in the journal Nature Sustainability that they considered the challenge in 59 regions of the globe and found that in 53 of their studies the switch to electric meant a clear reduction in climate-damaging emissions.

By 2050, half of all cars on the road could be electric. This would cut global emissions by up to 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. This is about what Russia puts into the atmosphere now.

The switch from homes heated by gas, coal or oil to electric pumps could save 800 million tonnes. This is about the same as Germany’s current greenhouse gas emissions.

Mythical increase

Lifetime emissions from electric cars in Sweden and France − which already get most of their electricity from renewables or nuclear power − would be up to 70% lower than from petrol-driven cars, and 30% lower in the UK.

“The answer is clear: to reduce carbon emissions, we should choose electric cars and household heat pumps over fossil-fuel alternatives,” said Florian Knobloch, of Radboud University in the Netherlands and Cambridge in the UK.

“In other words, the idea that electric vehicles or electric heat pumps could increase emissions is a myth. We’ve seen a lot of discussion of this recently, with lots of disinformation going around. Here is a definitive study that can dispel those myths.”

The 53 regions in the study represent 95% of world transport and heating demand. The scientists took into account energy use from the production chain at the beginning of a car’s or a heating system’s life, and the waste processing at the end, to find that the only exceptions were in places like Poland, which is still heavily dependent on coal.

“We decided to comprehensively test the case for a global coal exit: does it add up, economically speaking? The short answer is: yes, by far”

In 2015, the world’s nations agreed at an historic Paris meeting to attempt to limit average planetary warming to “well below” 2°C by the century’s end. Right now, by 2100 global temperatures could rise by a catastrophic 3°C.

A new study in Nature Climate Change confirms that to get to the 2°C target it doesn’t just make climate sense to shut the mines and close down the coal-burning power stations: it would save money as well, just in terms of reducing the health hazards associated with pollution and the damage to ecosystems and the loss of wildlife.

“We’re well into the 21st century now and still rely heavily on burning coal, making it one of the biggest threats to our climate, our health and our environment.

“That’s why we decided to comprehensively test the case for a global coal exit: does it add up, economically speaking? The short answer is: yes, by far,” said Sebastian Rauner of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who led the study.

Concrete burden

And his colleague Gunnar Luderer added: “Benefits from reduced health and ecosystem impacts clearly overcompensate the direct economic costs of a coal exit – they amount to a net saving of about 1.5% of global economic output by 2050. That is, $370 (£300) for every human on Earth in 2050.”

Around 8% of all greenhouse gases come from the concrete industry: it too is a source of air pollution and environmental destruction. Cement has to be baked from stone, and aggregate has to be gathered, hauled and brought to building sites, and the two have to be mixed.

US researchers report in Nature Climate Change that they quantified the costs in terms of climate, death and illness from the industry and arrived at damages of about $335bn a year.

They looked at ways of cleaner combustion in kiln fuel, the more efficient use of mineral additions that might replace cement, and the applications of clean energy: all of them available now.

Neglect of health

Methods to capture and store carbon emissions from the process are not yet ready: these could reduce climate damage costs by 50% to 65%.

If manufacturers used a fuel that burned more efficiently, they could reduce health damages by 14%. A mix of already available methods could, together, reduce climate and health damage by 44%.

“There is a high emissions burden associated with the production of concrete because there is so much demand for it,” said Sabbie Miller of the University of California Davis, who led the study.

“We clearly care a great deal about greenhouse gas emissions. But we haven’t paid as much attention to health burdens, which are also driven in large part by this demand.” − Climate News Network

A second US Dust Bowl would hit world food stocks

When the US Great Plains are hit again by sustained drought, the world’s food stocks will feel the heat.

LONDON, 27 March, 2020 – The next time the fertile soils of North America turn to dust, the consequences will hit food stocks worldwide.

Within four years of a climate crisis of the kind that fired John Steinbeck’s 1939 masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, the US would have consumed almost all its grain reserves.

And the ripple effects would be felt in all those countries to which America normally exports grain. That is because America feeds much of the world: in a good year, the US exports wheat with an energy value of more than 90 trillion kilocalories. The collapse of farmland into wasteland on the scale that inspired John Steinbeck could reduce this over a four-year period to around 50 trillion kcal.

Worldwide, global wheat reserves would fall by 31% in the first year, and four years on somewhere between 36 and 52 countries would have consumed three-fourths of their own reserves. Food prices would rise around the planet.

“In today’s system of global food trade, disruptions are not bound by borders. Shocks to production are expected to affect trade partners who depend on imports for their domestic food supply,” said Alison Heslin, a climate scientist at Columbia University in the US.

“Accessing food reserves can, for a time, buffer populations from trade-induced supply shortages, but as reserves deplete, people are at risk of food shortages”

“Our results remind us that mitigating climate risks requires accounting not only for the direct effects of climate change, like local extreme weather events, but also the climate impacts which travel through our interconnected system of global trade.”

By some time in the mid-century, most of the US will be between 1.5°C to 2°C warmer. Researchers have already warned that the border between the arid western states and the more fertile mid-western plains has shifted to the east.

There have been repeated warnings that as global average temperatures rise, in response to ever greater use of fossil fuels, the US will become increasingly vulnerable to climate extremes, including megadroughts. Drought is already becoming the “new normal” for Californians, and the fertility of the Great Plains is in any case vulnerable to human changes to a natural landscape.

A succession of droughts of the kind that turned the farmland of Kansas and Oklahoma into a devastated landscape, and turned thousands of Americans into climate refugees, would not necessarily now mean the onset of regional famine.

Dr Heslin and her colleagues report in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems that they contemplated the likelihood of a four-year drought of the kind that created the notorious 1930s Dust Bowl, and then examined the possible impact on world trade systems.

Yields and nutrition affected

Just one such climate event could hit hard those nations that rely on food imports, but even the other great grain-producing countries – among them China, India, Iran, Canada, Russia, Morocco, Australia and Egypt – would see their reserves fall.

The climate crisis is in any case a threat to the world’s supper tables. There has been repeated evidence that food output will inevitably be at risk in a warming world. With higher temperatures, yields will be reduced and with higher atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide that warm the planet, nutrition levels of many staples are expected to fall.

The researchers factored in none of these things. They supposed that a climate catastrophe that paralleled the Dust Bowl era would occur only in the US, and found that, despite strain, the world’s markets could probably cope.

But other studies have repeatedly found that the potential for climate catastrophe and massive crop failure to strike in more than one region at any one time are increasing, with ominous consequences for world food security.

“In the context of food security, we show that accessing food reserves can, for a time, buffer populations from trade-induced supply shortages,” said Dr Heslin, “but as reserves deplete, people are at risk of food shortages.” – Climate News Network

When the US Great Plains are hit again by sustained drought, the world’s food stocks will feel the heat.

LONDON, 27 March, 2020 – The next time the fertile soils of North America turn to dust, the consequences will hit food stocks worldwide.

Within four years of a climate crisis of the kind that fired John Steinbeck’s 1939 masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, the US would have consumed almost all its grain reserves.

And the ripple effects would be felt in all those countries to which America normally exports grain. That is because America feeds much of the world: in a good year, the US exports wheat with an energy value of more than 90 trillion kilocalories. The collapse of farmland into wasteland on the scale that inspired John Steinbeck could reduce this over a four-year period to around 50 trillion kcal.

Worldwide, global wheat reserves would fall by 31% in the first year, and four years on somewhere between 36 and 52 countries would have consumed three-fourths of their own reserves. Food prices would rise around the planet.

“In today’s system of global food trade, disruptions are not bound by borders. Shocks to production are expected to affect trade partners who depend on imports for their domestic food supply,” said Alison Heslin, a climate scientist at Columbia University in the US.

“Accessing food reserves can, for a time, buffer populations from trade-induced supply shortages, but as reserves deplete, people are at risk of food shortages”

“Our results remind us that mitigating climate risks requires accounting not only for the direct effects of climate change, like local extreme weather events, but also the climate impacts which travel through our interconnected system of global trade.”

By some time in the mid-century, most of the US will be between 1.5°C to 2°C warmer. Researchers have already warned that the border between the arid western states and the more fertile mid-western plains has shifted to the east.

There have been repeated warnings that as global average temperatures rise, in response to ever greater use of fossil fuels, the US will become increasingly vulnerable to climate extremes, including megadroughts. Drought is already becoming the “new normal” for Californians, and the fertility of the Great Plains is in any case vulnerable to human changes to a natural landscape.

A succession of droughts of the kind that turned the farmland of Kansas and Oklahoma into a devastated landscape, and turned thousands of Americans into climate refugees, would not necessarily now mean the onset of regional famine.

Dr Heslin and her colleagues report in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems that they contemplated the likelihood of a four-year drought of the kind that created the notorious 1930s Dust Bowl, and then examined the possible impact on world trade systems.

Yields and nutrition affected

Just one such climate event could hit hard those nations that rely on food imports, but even the other great grain-producing countries – among them China, India, Iran, Canada, Russia, Morocco, Australia and Egypt – would see their reserves fall.

The climate crisis is in any case a threat to the world’s supper tables. There has been repeated evidence that food output will inevitably be at risk in a warming world. With higher temperatures, yields will be reduced and with higher atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide that warm the planet, nutrition levels of many staples are expected to fall.

The researchers factored in none of these things. They supposed that a climate catastrophe that paralleled the Dust Bowl era would occur only in the US, and found that, despite strain, the world’s markets could probably cope.

But other studies have repeatedly found that the potential for climate catastrophe and massive crop failure to strike in more than one region at any one time are increasing, with ominous consequences for world food security.

“In the context of food security, we show that accessing food reserves can, for a time, buffer populations from trade-induced supply shortages,” said Dr Heslin, “but as reserves deplete, people are at risk of food shortages.” – Climate News Network

Fast pandemic response could tackle climate crisis

Societies worldwide are changing overnight to meet the coronavirus threat. The climate crisis should match the rapid pandemic response.

LONDON, 26 March, 2020 – If you want to know how fast a modern society can change, go to most British town centres and see the pandemic response. They will be unrecognisable from what they were 10 days ago.

You’ll see far fewer pedestrians, now sheltering from coronavirus infection at home, far fewer vehicles, hardly an aircraft in the skies above. The familiar levels of urban noise have faded to a murmur. The usual air pollution is dropping fast, with reports of significant falls from not just the UK but China and northern Italy as well.

So we can change when we decide to, and a pandemic demands change that’s both radical and rapid. But pandemics are not unique in that respect: there’s something else on the world’s agenda that’s crying out for action to match what’s happening today.

Dieter Helm is professor of economic policy at New College, University of Oxford. He writes in the latest entry on his site: “The coronavirus crisis will come to an end even if coronavirus does not … What will not be forgotten by future historians is climate change and the destruction of the natural environment.” What can we learn from this crisis that will help us when it’s over?

The Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) is a UK-based organisation which argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C”.

“Prevention and resilience are what we need, to mitigate not just viruses, but also the destruction of the wider natural environment”

It says pandemics show how good governments are at responding fast and effectively, and at changing economic priorities in the public interest. But one vital element is to ensure that people clearly understand the risks involved, as this can lead to much faster, co-ordinated responses to an emergency, explaining and justifying policy changes that otherwise might lack support.

People can change their daily habits very quickly. Where behaviour changes show that more sustainable behaviour is possible – such as avoiding unnecessary travel – many could be encouraged to adopt them as a new norm.

Reactions to COVID-19 in China have improved urban air quality, leading to emissions reductions in different industrial sectors ranging from 15% – 40%. If plummeting levels of air pollution gave people a lasting taste for cleaner air, the Alliance suggests, this might shift expectations and open up new possibilities for change.

We can very quickly change our expectations about how we travel, work and entertain ourselves in a pandemic, it believes, and how we learn to behave, so as to minimise transmission risks.

There have been previous successes in overcoming pandemics, although they happened in different eras, using different technologies and living with different customs and systems of belief, so we  cannot always learn directly from them.

One recent success has been the international effort to subdue HIV/AIDS. First identified in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976, the disease has killed more than 32 million people, yet since 1995 death rates from it have dropped by 80%.

Not profit alone

The World Health Organisation estimates that there were around 37.9 million people living with HIV at the end of 2018, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2002, UNAIDS negotiated with five pharmaceutical companies to reduce anti-retroviral drug prices for developing countries – a key step in making combating the disease a greater priority than profit.

Between 2000 and 2018 new HIV infections fell by 37% and HIV-related deaths fell by 45%. Changes in attitude, the RTA argues, have been vital in achieving an effective response, including the action of a well-known early casualty, Rock Hudson, who left funds for research into the virus, and Princess Diana, who famously shook hands with an AIDS sufferer to show the condition was not contagious.

Between 2005 and 2012 annual global deaths from HIV/AIDS dropped from 2.2m to 1.6m, and dropped again by 2018 to 770,000.

The RTA argues that Inadequate action on climate heating is like knowing the cure to COVID-19 and yet failing to manufacture and distribute it and treat people affected by it.

Action trails promises

Some of the latest climate research points to a growing gap between the commitments on the climate emergency which nations have made, and the action which scientists say is needed, and the RTA says three lessons on rapid transition stand out from global pandemic responses:

  • A clear understanding of risk can lead to much faster, co-ordinated responses to an emergency
  • The rapid, physical mobilisation of resources can happen alongside behaviour change. People can change their daily habits very quickly and adapt to new social norms
  • Where adaptations and behaviour changes reveal possibilities for more sustainable behaviour – such as avoiding unnecessary travel – they should be encouraged to become the new norm, and part of the broader climate emergency response.

Professor Helm agrees that there are lessons to be learnt about the climate crisis from the world’s reaction to pandemics, but he doesn’t think they will all necessarily be welcome.

For a start, he says, “the virus has created an economic crisis, and people will be less willing to pay for saving future generations. There are more immediate pressing problems.”

Warning that history will remember climate change, biodiversity loss and our ravaging of the Earth, he concludes: “It remains to be seen whether this particular crisis leads to a broader and a more fundamental rethink. We have not paid enough to support the health service, preferring lower taxes.

“There is a broader lesson here too, and a really great legacy of this crisis would be that we learn it. Prevention and resilience are what we need, to mitigate not just viruses, but also the destruction of the wider natural environment.” − Climate News Network

* * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

Societies worldwide are changing overnight to meet the coronavirus threat. The climate crisis should match the rapid pandemic response.

LONDON, 26 March, 2020 – If you want to know how fast a modern society can change, go to most British town centres and see the pandemic response. They will be unrecognisable from what they were 10 days ago.

You’ll see far fewer pedestrians, now sheltering from coronavirus infection at home, far fewer vehicles, hardly an aircraft in the skies above. The familiar levels of urban noise have faded to a murmur. The usual air pollution is dropping fast, with reports of significant falls from not just the UK but China and northern Italy as well.

So we can change when we decide to, and a pandemic demands change that’s both radical and rapid. But pandemics are not unique in that respect: there’s something else on the world’s agenda that’s crying out for action to match what’s happening today.

Dieter Helm is professor of economic policy at New College, University of Oxford. He writes in the latest entry on his site: “The coronavirus crisis will come to an end even if coronavirus does not … What will not be forgotten by future historians is climate change and the destruction of the natural environment.” What can we learn from this crisis that will help us when it’s over?

The Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) is a UK-based organisation which argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C”.

“Prevention and resilience are what we need, to mitigate not just viruses, but also the destruction of the wider natural environment”

It says pandemics show how good governments are at responding fast and effectively, and at changing economic priorities in the public interest. But one vital element is to ensure that people clearly understand the risks involved, as this can lead to much faster, co-ordinated responses to an emergency, explaining and justifying policy changes that otherwise might lack support.

People can change their daily habits very quickly. Where behaviour changes show that more sustainable behaviour is possible – such as avoiding unnecessary travel – many could be encouraged to adopt them as a new norm.

Reactions to COVID-19 in China have improved urban air quality, leading to emissions reductions in different industrial sectors ranging from 15% – 40%. If plummeting levels of air pollution gave people a lasting taste for cleaner air, the Alliance suggests, this might shift expectations and open up new possibilities for change.

We can very quickly change our expectations about how we travel, work and entertain ourselves in a pandemic, it believes, and how we learn to behave, so as to minimise transmission risks.

There have been previous successes in overcoming pandemics, although they happened in different eras, using different technologies and living with different customs and systems of belief, so we  cannot always learn directly from them.

One recent success has been the international effort to subdue HIV/AIDS. First identified in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976, the disease has killed more than 32 million people, yet since 1995 death rates from it have dropped by 80%.

Not profit alone

The World Health Organisation estimates that there were around 37.9 million people living with HIV at the end of 2018, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2002, UNAIDS negotiated with five pharmaceutical companies to reduce anti-retroviral drug prices for developing countries – a key step in making combating the disease a greater priority than profit.

Between 2000 and 2018 new HIV infections fell by 37% and HIV-related deaths fell by 45%. Changes in attitude, the RTA argues, have been vital in achieving an effective response, including the action of a well-known early casualty, Rock Hudson, who left funds for research into the virus, and Princess Diana, who famously shook hands with an AIDS sufferer to show the condition was not contagious.

Between 2005 and 2012 annual global deaths from HIV/AIDS dropped from 2.2m to 1.6m, and dropped again by 2018 to 770,000.

The RTA argues that Inadequate action on climate heating is like knowing the cure to COVID-19 and yet failing to manufacture and distribute it and treat people affected by it.

Action trails promises

Some of the latest climate research points to a growing gap between the commitments on the climate emergency which nations have made, and the action which scientists say is needed, and the RTA says three lessons on rapid transition stand out from global pandemic responses:

  • A clear understanding of risk can lead to much faster, co-ordinated responses to an emergency
  • The rapid, physical mobilisation of resources can happen alongside behaviour change. People can change their daily habits very quickly and adapt to new social norms
  • Where adaptations and behaviour changes reveal possibilities for more sustainable behaviour – such as avoiding unnecessary travel – they should be encouraged to become the new norm, and part of the broader climate emergency response.

Professor Helm agrees that there are lessons to be learnt about the climate crisis from the world’s reaction to pandemics, but he doesn’t think they will all necessarily be welcome.

For a start, he says, “the virus has created an economic crisis, and people will be less willing to pay for saving future generations. There are more immediate pressing problems.”

Warning that history will remember climate change, biodiversity loss and our ravaging of the Earth, he concludes: “It remains to be seen whether this particular crisis leads to a broader and a more fundamental rethink. We have not paid enough to support the health service, preferring lower taxes.

“There is a broader lesson here too, and a really great legacy of this crisis would be that we learn it. Prevention and resilience are what we need, to mitigate not just viruses, but also the destruction of the wider natural environment.” − Climate News Network

* * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.