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Invasive species can wreak havoc on an ecosystem, as well as a region’s economy. In Europe, some of these invasive species are already affecting certain areas and researchers have identified these species, including the golden apple snail that is putting the agricultural sector in the Ebro river basin at risk as well as water hyacinths that are threatening to destroy the natural ecosystem of the Guadiana River. What can be done?

What is Happening?

Pablo González Moreno, an expert on invasive species and a member of the ERSAF (Assessment and Restoration of Farming and Forest Systems) group at the University of Córdoba, who collaborated on the study, says regarding the feasibility of eradicating different invasive plant species,”It would be ideal to eradicate all the invasive species but financial and labor resources are limited, even more so now, when we are dealing with other priorities.”

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While it is natural that species will venture northwards to escape the warming effects of climate change, invasive species may nevertheless seriously damage ecosystems in which they venture to, making studies like these vital, not only to help manage these invasive species currently found in Europe, but also to have a future management plan in case these species are able to get to Europe.

Featured image by: Flickr 

According to new data, harvesting in Europe has caused the continent to lose a vastly increased area of forests in recent years, reducing the continent’s carbon sequestration capacity and placing doubts on the EU’s ability to mitigate the climate crisis.

Many of the EU’s forests, which roughly accounts for about 38% of its land surface area, are managed and harvested regularly for timber production. However, according to satellite data, the loss of biomass increased by 69% in the period from 2016 to 2018 when compared with the same period from 2011 to 2015. The area of forest harvested increased by 49% in the same comparison, published in the journal Nature Research

Even accounting for natural events such as fires and heavy snows, this data shows that far more harvesting of forests has occurred in Europe in a short period of time.

Other factors may include increased demand for wood as fuel and expansions of timber markets along with wood products. This data shows that forests are being unsustainably harvested.

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Of 26 countries studied, this harvesting is most pronounced in Sweden, which accounted for 29% of the increase, Finland for about 22%, and Poland, Spain, Latvia, Portugal and Estonia jointly accounted for about 30% of the increase. 

Guido Ceccherini of the EU Joint Research Centre and lead author of the study, says that the observed increase in harvesting and the subsequent loss of biomass was unlikely to result in the decline of overall forested area in the EU as harvested forests regenerate. However, it would disrupt the carbon absorption capacity of the forests in the short term, he said. 

Ceccherini says, “The forests continue to remain a carbon sink, but less than before. Even if part of the harvested biomass carbon is used in long-lasting wood products, possibly replacing more energy -intensive materials such as steel or cement, most of it will return to the atmosphere as CO2 in a short period of time, [from] months to a few years. Until the carbon stock in harvested areas returns to previous levels, which takes several decades, depending on the type of forest, an increase in harvest is therefore equivalent to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere.” 

Although Europe’s carbon balance may not be greatly affected in the long term, with harvested forests regenerating, the researchers claim that it is important to find out why harvesting has increased so rapidly, as this may indicate larger underlying issues with regards to the way in which Europe’s forests are being managed. More research is needed in order to establish definitive causes. However, the researchers have hypothesised that an increase in the demand for timber and wood products, such as pulp and paper, and more burning of biomass for fuel may be the reasons for the rapid rise in harvesting observed in the Nordic countries. 

Professor Thomas Crowther, founder of Crowther Lab, who was not involved in the research, said: “It is concerning to see that the increasing demand for forest products may be reducing the carbon stored within living biomass in European forests. It is possibly more concerning that forest removal may also threaten the storage of carbon below ground. These high-latitude forests support some of the largest soil carbon stock on Earth. If forest clearing threatens the integrity of high-latitude soil carbon stocks, then the climate impacts may be stronger than previously expected.” 

Forests offset about 10% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. While the areas harvested are likely to be replanted and the growth will continue to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a recent study that found that the climate crisis is driving the shift towards younger and shorter trees in forested ecosystems places doubt on the ability of these forests to continue to offset this volume of carbon dioxide in the long term.

Featured image by: Hans Permana

In March, the European Commission published its proposal for a European Climate Law, the cornerstone of its European Green Deal agenda. The Climate Law proposal, if passed in its current form, will create on the EU as a whole a legally binding target of being climate neutral, or net-zero, by 2050.

What is the EU Climate Law proposal?

The proposal, as part of the European Green Deal, has been hailed by the EU itself as Europe’s man on the moon moment. However, climate activist Greta Thunberg has labeled the proposal as a ‘surrender’ and as ‘empty words’ because reaching net-zero by 2050 is viewed by leading climate scientists as being too little, too late.

The current climate and energy goals of the EU are set out in a non-binding framework dated 2014: the EU aims to cut at least 40% of its greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels, to have at least 32% renewable energy in its overall energy mix and to have a 32.5% improvement in energy efficiency by 2030.

The climate-neutrality target laid out in the new law was initially endorsed by the European Parliament in 2019 after new climate models had made it clear that the then current climate trajectory would only lead to around a 60% reduction by 2050 compared to 1990 levels.

Climate-Neutrality Objective vs Trajectory 

The overall objective of the law is set out in article 2(1), which states that “Union-wide emissions and removals of greenhouse gases regulated in Union law shall be balanced at the latest by 2050, thus reducing emissions to net-zero by that date.” Article 2(2) imposes obligations on the Union and its member states collectively and individually to take the necessary measures to facilitate this. Union-wide in this context means that the objective is for the EU as a whole to reach net-zero. Therefore some member states will have to go beyond net-zero and achieve negative emissions, while other member states will need more time to adjust their economies. 

Article 3 empowers the Commission, starting from 2030, to set a trajectory detailing how the climate-neutrality objective is to be reached, taking into account, among other things, cost-effectiveness and competitiveness, the best available technology, fairness and solidarity, energy efficiency and energy security, in addition to the best and most recent research in the field, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) being highlighted in the draft text. The trajectory will be set out and updated through delegated acts, but whether or not these will be legally binding or directly enforceable is clear neither from the Commission’s explanatory memorandum nor the draft law.

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Assessment of Progress and Measures – Articles 5 and 6

By 30 September 2023 and every five years thereafter the Commission shall assess the collective progress of the member states and the Union itself (article 5), and the adequacy of individual measures adopted by the member states (article 6). The conclusions of the Commission shall be presented to the European Parliament and the European Council.

The Commission is allowed to issue recommendations to those member states whose progress is inconsistent with the climate-neutrality target, however the member states are only required to take due account of the recommendation and, if it decides not to address the issues in the recommendation, explain its reasoning in a public report.

International Context — Paris and Aarhus

The EU Climate Law proposal includes direct overlaps, references and allusions to international environmental treaties, in particular, the Paris Agreement and the Aarhus Convention, the latter of which affords everyone the right to receive environmental information that is held by public authorities.

The climate-neutrality objective itself was supported by the European Council with the explicit purpose of achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement. The temperature goal of the Paris Agreement may be interpreted as the ultimate goal for which the EU Climate Law and the European Green Deal are striving. In the preamble, the long-term climate-neutrality goal is described as crucial for achieving the economic and societal transformation the Paris Agreement’s 1.5/2°C goal requires. 

Article 4 of the draft law contains a direct reference to article 7 of the Paris Agreement and an obligation to make continuous progress towards improving adaptation strategies and reducing climate change vulnerability. Also reflecting the link between the EU Climate Law and the Paris Agreement, the reporting mechanisms under articles 5 and 6 of the law, together with the reporting procedures in Regulation 2018/1999, are deliberately synchronised with the global stocktake of the Paris Agreement, starting in 2023.

Criticisms of the EU Climate Law

The only substantive binding target or obligation contained in the draft regulation is the climate-neutrality objective. There are no individual targets imposed on the member states that need an extra push, nor does the commission appear to be empowered to take the necessary measures to enforce the collective objective or its trajectory in an efficient way.

The main shortcoming under this heading concerns the obligation under article 2(3) to explore options for a new 2030 target of 50 to 55% emission reductions compared to 1990. The commission is scheduled to present an impact assessment of the feasibility of doing this in a responsible way this summer. The fact that the legal text includes the obligation to consider the impact assessment and to revise the plan later makes it all seem quite rushed. In order to give the new law maximum impact the ambitiously revised 2030 targets should have been included in the draft law and should have been made legally binding.

If the commission wanted its level of ambition to be in line with the marketing of the draft law, the proposal could have included an ambitious and legally binding 2030 target, concrete sectoral transformation and reduction targets, and concrete and ambitious targets on individual member states. Some of these ideas have already been endorsed by a group of climate and environmental ministers from 12 member states in a letter to the commission.

Two main enforcement mechanisms are available to the commission under the draft law. First, there is public naming and shaming, primarily through the public reports and recommendations mandated by articles 5 and 6. The fact that the reports and recommendations of the Commission regarding the consistency and progress of the measures and plans of the individual member states towards achieving the neutrality objective are to be made public could, and ideally will push the member states into compliance. However, certain member states have a track record of not incorporating and enforcing EU environmental law and appear to be unperturbed by pressure from the commission or national green movements. Because of this, there is a question mark over the effectiveness of the naming and shaming procedure, particularly for member states with an existing habit of non-compliance with environmental obligations.

The most powerful tool at the commission’s disposal, and its last resort, is to launch infringement proceedings against a member state before the Court of Justice of the EU. This procedure is legalistic and consists of a number of time-consuming procedural steps that, combined with the workloads of the commission and of the court, result in the average infringement case lasting 38 months from the date the first official reasoned opinion is sent to a member state to the date the court makes a ruling.

Taking into account the limited time from 2030, when the obligations will come into force, to 2050 and the massive societal, economic, industrial, political and economic changes all member states need to implement to be anywhere near reaching EU-wide net-zero within the deadline, 38 months for each infringement is excessive and ineffective. This is especially so when the follow-up proceedings to impose financial penalties are taken into account. Furthermore, the court may only impose financial penalties and has no other enforcement powers to ensure compliance. This underlines the limits of the EU’s constitutional framework to ensure enforcement of its laws rather than a flaw in the draft law, but it is nonetheless a clear danger to its potential success.

The third shortcoming of the draft law is the lack of independent scientific oversight of the climate-neutrality trajectory formulated in article 3. Article 3(3)(j) obliges the commission to consider “the best available and most recent scientific evidence, including the latest reports of the IPCC.” However, ‘considering’ is not the same as ‘following’ and this formulation is merely an obligation to take a look at the latest science. The trajectory is ultimately a political decision and therefore subject to the respective veto powers of the European Parliament and the council.

This is a serious shortcoming because the setting of the trajectory will be subject to the veto of the council, where climate change-denying member states are represented, and subject to the politics of the commission. This renders the law a highly politicised instrument and most likely an ineffective one.   

Practical alternatives could include creating an independent scientific body that proposes the trajectory based on its expert opinion and then leaves it to the commission and the council to publicly justify any alterations. The commission could follow the advisory structures that already exist in the EU, for instance, the scientific committees established under Commission Decision 2008/721/EC or the High-Level Group of Scientific Advisors. This could depoliticise the trajectory as a concept, increase transparency and ensure accountability for unambitious decisions and choices. Leading researchers in the field, such as Nils Meyer-Ohlendorf of the Ecologic Institute, have called the lack of an independent scientific body a missed opportunity as “Independent scientific bodies support consistency between climate long-term goals and short-term action. They enhance the role of science, and help build the necessary political will to decarbonise economies.”

The draft is now in the hands of the EU’s legislature, where the European Parliament (which is directly elected) and the Council of the European Union (which represents the government of the member states) will discuss, amend and agree on the final text of the regulation. The European Parliament has already signalled that it wants to significantly toughen the law while the Council is more careful.

The European Climate Law is a great step in the right direction but it falls short of the level of ambition the EU is capable of achieving. In its current form, the law is more like Apollo 5 than the moonwalk: in orbit but far from the moon. 

The fight against the COVID-19 pandemic eased air pollution levels as a result of lockdown measures around the world, especially in China. However, data from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (Crea) shows that the concentrations of fine particles (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) across China are now at the same levels as one year earlier. At the height of the country’s pandemic response in early March, NO2 levels were down by 38% while PM2.5 levels were down by 34% from 2019. 

Lauri Myllyvirta, Crea’s lead analyst, says, “The rapid rebound in air pollution and coal consumption levels across China is an early warning of what a smokestack industry-led rebound could look like. Highly polluting industries have been faster to recover from the crisis than the rest of the economy.” She emphasises the need for policymakers to maintain and prioritise clean energy. 

Additionally, energy consultancy group Wood Mackenzie predicts that China’s oil demand will recover to near-normal levels in the second quarter of this year. 

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In Wuhan, the city at the centre of the epidemic, NO2 levels are now 14% lower than last year, having briefly dropped by almost half, while Shanghai’s latest levels are 9% higher than that of last year. 

European cities have also experienced reduced air pollution; 42 of them recorded below-average levels of NO2 in March, according to data from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS). London and Paris saw 30% reductions in NO2, a pollutant hugely produced by diesel vehicles. 

However, Europe’s pollution levels are also expected to rebound, although Vincent-Henri Peuch, the director of CAMS says that they have not yet been able to show that. He noted average air pollution levels across cities. 

Peuch added that what happens to the future air quality in European cities remains to be seen, saying “We do not know how people’s behaviour will change, for example avoiding public transport and therefore relying more on their own cars or continuing to work from home.” While Spring is normally the most polluted season in Western Europe in normal years due to the start of agriculture, projecting future pollution changes is considered complex. 

Gary Fuller, an air pollution expert at King’s College London, says “Rather than let this time be forgotten, the United Nations and environmental campaigners are urging governments to ‘build back better, to invest in the future not the past’, and to ensure that our global recovery has a sustainable legacy.” 

Air pollution affects virtually every organ in the body and growing bodies of research has linked exposure to dirty air to increased risk of death from COVID-19, making clear the need to keep the air pollution low to prevent the dangers of a new wave of infections. 

Air pollution causes at least eight million premature deaths annually, with 1.1 million of these in China. Experts have called for action to be taken to ensure that air quality remains at lockdown levels; some cities have taken such measures, including expanding bicycle lanes and pedestrian spaces. The rise in air pollution in China and Europe is a clear demonstration that clean energy should be prioritised in the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis; all eyes are on China as the first major economy to return to work after its lockdown.

Featured image by: V.T. Polywoda

The European Commission has committed to protecting 30% of the lands and oceans in the EU by 2030 as part of the EU Green Deal’s biodiversity strategy. Environment groups have urged that such far-reaching ambitions be enforced stringently so as to not allow them to exist only ‘on paper’. What will be included in this fund and how effective will it be?

The New EU Biodiversity Strategy

The 10-year plan includes commitments to reduce the use of chemical pesticides by 50%, plant three billion trees by 2030 and reverse the decline in pollinators. Within these 30% protected areas in the EU, a third of land and sea will be under ‘strict protection’, meaning that there will be no human intervention besides minimal management to keep the area in good condition and boost biodiversity.

This follows a text drafted by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in January that called for a global commitment to protect at least 30% of the planet in the next decade. 

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Areas under strict protection will include carbon-rich habitats such as primary and old-growth forests, peatlands, wetlands and grasslands. Currently, only 3% of land and 1% of marine areas are under strict protection. 

The Commission aims to raise at least €20bn per year to fund the plan. The report outlining the plan says that the money will come from private and public funding at EU and national level. A ‘significant’ proportion of the EU’s climate budget will also be invested in biodiversity.

Sabien Leemans, senior policy officer for biodiversity at WWF, says that this figure was “probably at the bottom of the scale, but it’s the first time they’ve mentioned a concrete figure, so that’s already good.”

The plan also puts pressure on reworking the common agricultural policy (CAP) which has been accused of driving biodiversity decline through its subsidy scheme that rewards farmers for the amount of land they own, rather than for making environmental improvements. 

10% of agricultural lands will be transformed into ‘high-diversity landscapes’ with the creation of buffer strips, hedges, ponds and fallow land. 25% of agricultural land will be managed organically by 2030. 

Ariel Brunner, senior head of policy at BirdLife International’s Brussels office, calls these agricultural targets a ‘game-changer’ and says that the 2100 biodiversity targets for agriculture were extremely weak because of the strength of the EU’s farming lobby, which resulted in a ‘lost decade’ for wildlife. 

He adds, “When you combine these new targets- and if they are implemented, which is a big if- then you are starting to look at healthy agriculture that can provide habitats for farmland birds and butterflies but also agriculture that can actually provide food at the end of the century.

This new strategy comes after decades of severe loss of biodiversity, with wildlife populations falling on average by 60% in the past 40 years as a result of human activities. The report adds that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the link environmental and human health, calling for ambitious action.

However, some environmental campaigners are concerned that the commitments lack detail about how these changes will be implemented and enforced. 

Paul de Zylva, nature campaigner at Friends of the Earth, says, “It’s good to see ambition to extend protected areas, boost tree cover, cut pesticide use and to bring back species in decline. But there is a huge sense of déjà vu reading this latest strategy because many of the same ambitions have been set out, and not delivered, by previous nature plans.”

“Europe can’t afford another decade of failure to protect and restore our natural world,” he adds. 

The report acknowledges that not properly looking after protected land was having ‘disastrous consequences’ on biodiversity. 

The Commission promises to outline in 2021 legally binding targets on EU member states to restore nature reserves, such as meadows, peatlands, grasslands and forests, and boost biodiversity. Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU commissioner for environment and oceans, says that without a ‘dedicated binding framework in support of the biodiversity strategy’, there is a ‘high risk that biodiversity loss would continue’. 

The European Commission has been criticised for being ‘too timid’ in taking national governments to court for breaking environmental rules. 

According to The Guardian, the Commission takes a law-breaking country to the ECJ without four months for a breach of EU’s transport rules, while the same process takes 66 months for flouting environmental standards.

Brunner says, “The real game-changer will be enforcement. That’s the acid-test for all of this- you can set the best targets in the world but if ultimately, people can just get away with criminal activity with no consequences, then it doesn’t hold.”

The plan is expected to be discussed at the UN Convention of Biodiversity, COP15, in Kunming in 2021. 190 countries will discuss biodiversity targets for the next decade, and it is likely that the EU will put pressure on other countries to follow its lead. 

A study shows that within 50 years, a billion people will either be displaced or forced to live in insufferable heat for every 1°C rise in global temperature, illustrating that the human cost of the climate crisis will be far worse than previously believed. 

The paper, which examines how the climate crisis will affect human habitats, warns that under worst-case scenarios of increasing emissions, areas where a third of the global population currently live will be as hot as the hottest parts of the Sahara desert within 50 years.

Even in the most optimistic outlook, a rise in global temperature will cause 1.2 billion people to fall outside the comfortable ‘climate niche’ where humans have lived for at least 6 000 years.

Tim Lenton, one of the researchers in the study, says, “The numbers are flabbergasting. I literally did a double take when I first saw them. I’ve previously studied climate tipping points, which are usually considered apocalyptic. But this hit home harder. This puts the threat in very human terms.”

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The majority of humans have always lived in regions where the average annual temperatures are around 6°C to 28°C, ideal for human health and food production. However, this range is shifting and shrinking as a result of anthropogenic climate change, which is dropping more and more people into what the paper describes as ‘near unliveable’ extremes.

The researchers say that they are shocked at how sensitive humanity is, because we are concentrated on land- which is warming faster than the oceans- and because most future population growth will be in already hot regions of Asia and Africa. Because of these demographic factors, the average human will experience a temperature increase of 7.5°C when global temperatures reach 3°C warming.

At this temperature, about a third of the world’s population would live in average temperatures of 29°C, conditions that are rare outside of the most scorched part of the Sahara, but with global heating of 3°C, this is expected to be the norm for 1.2 billion people in India, 485 million people in Nigeria and more than 100 million in each of Pakistan, Indonesia and Sudan. This would create hundreds of millions more climate refugees and pose challenges to food production systems. In fact, David Wallas- Wells, the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” says that even at 2.5°C warming, the world would enter a global food deficit- needing more calories than the planet can produce, mostly thanks to drought.

Professor Marten Scheffer, one of the lead authors of the study, says, ““We did not expect humans to be so sensitive. We think of ourselves as very adaptable because we use clothes, heating and air conditioning. But, in fact, the vast majority of people live- and have always lived- inside a climate niche that is now moving as never before. There will be more change in the next 50 years than in the past 6 000 years.”

The authors hope that their findings spur policymakers to accelerate emission cuts and work together to cope with migration.

In late 2018, the UN World Meteorological Organization warned that global temperatures are on course for a 3-5°C rise this century, far overshooting the Paris Agreement target of limiting this increase to 2°C or less by 2100.

According to estimates from over 70 peer-reviewed studies, Carbon Brief paints a grim picture of the world under 2°C, 3°C and 4°C temperature rise this century:

At two degrees, the melting of ice sheets will pass a tipping point of collapse, triggering flooding in dozens of the world’s major cities and resulting in a global sea-level rise of 56cm. It is estimated that that global GDP will be cut by 13%. 400 million more people will suffer from water scarcity and heat waves in the northern latitudes will kill thousands each summer; this will be worse along the equator. In India, there would be 32 times as many extreme heat waves, each lasting five times as long and exposing 93 times more people. This is our best-case scenario.

At three degrees, southern Europe will be in permanent drought. The average drought in Central America would last 19 months, in the Caribbean, 21 and in northern Africa, 60 months- five years. Those areas burned annually by wildfires would double in the Mediterranean and sextuple in the US. Cities from Miami Beach to Jakarta will be submerged by sea-level rise and damages from river flooding will grow 30-fold in Bangladesh, 20-fold in India and up to 60-fold in the UK. This level of warming is better than we’d do if all of the nations of the world honoured their Paris commitments- which only a handful are.

At four degrees, there would be eight million cases of dengue fever each year in Latin America alone. Global grain yields would fall by as much as 50%, producing annual or close-to-annual food crises. The global economy would fall more than 30% than without climate change, and we would see at least half again as much conflict and warfare as we do today.

While great strides have been made in terms of the plummeting costs of renewable energy and the increasing global divestment from coal, carbon emissions are still growing. It is important to decrease emissions to level and then bend the curve.

One way of doing this is through a carbon tax. However, a tax needs to be far higher than any of those currently in use or being considered; The IPCC has proposed raising the cost of a tonne of carbon possibly as high as US$5 000 by 2030; they suggest this may have to increase by US$27 000 by 2100. Today, the average price of carbon across 42 major economies is US$8 per tonne.

These numbers would shock even those most optimistic; if estimates are correct, then by the end of the century, a rise in global temperature will displace up to 5 billion people, nearly two-thirds of the current global population.

Featured image by: Oxfam East Africa

COVID-19 has spread rapidly from China to the rest of the world. Thousands of lives have been lost and the pandemic has all but crashed the global stock market. China closed its factories, transportation systems and locked down major cities to slow the spread of the virus, and the country’s GDP is expected to drop a few percentage points this year. It may be tough to be optimistic, but an unexpected benefit of COVID-19 is the decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. 

Satellite images from NASA have shown that a drop in industrial and economic activities has resulted in reduced greenhouse gas emissions and improved air quality in Wuhan, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, over the Chinese New Year. Levels also dropped in Beijing and Hebei province, as well as Shanghai and the Yangtze River Delta region. 

The images show that pollution dropped, and didn’t rebound after the holiday. The level of PM2.5, dangerous small pollution particles, fell by 25%, while nitrogen dioxide, produced mainly by diesel vehicles, dropped by 40%. Nitrogen dioxide produces ozone, which, on the ground, is detrimental to human health, causing asthma, lung cancer and other respiratory and pulmonary illnesses. 

COVID-19 Reveals Unexpected Benefit- Reduced Emissions
Satellite images showing nitrogen dioxide emissions from January 1 2019 to February 25 2020 (Source: NASA).

PM2.5 is responsible for more than one million premature deaths in China annually and for the reduction of crop yields.

In February, during the peak of the outbreak in China, the nation’s carbon emissions dropped by about 100 million tonnes, accounting for more than 25% of carbon dioxide emissions since the outbreak began compared to the same period in 2019, roughly 6% of global carbon dioxide emissions. 

Similar drops in emissions were seen during the 2008 Olympics held in Beijing, when the government implemented measures to decrease air pollution. Measures included replacing high-emitting vehicles with increased public transportation options, shutting down some chemical plants in Beijing, raising the price of gasoline to discourage the use of cars and requiring power and chemical plants to decrease emissions by 30%. These measures caused a sudden and sharp decrease in air pollution levels in Beijing and nearby cities. The particulate matter in the air in the city decreased by an average of 18% during 2008. 

Italy

Italy has seen the greatest number of combined cases of COVID-19 of any country outside China. Public spaces have since been closed throughout the country. As people have stayed home, nitrogen emissions in Italy, particularly in the northern regions, have fallen. The European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite tracks air pollution in the atmosphere, and the satellite has seen a sharp decrease in emissions of nitrogen dioxide over Italy since the beginning of the year. 

“Although there could be slight variations in the data due to cloud cover and changing weather, we are very confident that the reduction in emissions that we can see coincides with the lockdown in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities,” Claus Zehner, the mission’s manager at ESA, said in a statement. 

COVID-19 Reveals Unexpected Benefit- Reduced Emissions
Images showing the decrease in nitrogen dioxide emissions over Italy from January 31 to March 8 2020 (Source: Copernicus Sentinel data processed by the ESA).

There have also been sightings of swans and fish in the port and canals of Venice due to the lack of gondolas, cruise ships and noise pollution in the city. 

The UK

While behind Italy in terms of the spread of the disease, roadside monitors in the UK are already showing significant reductions in levels of pollution. Road traffic accounts for about 80% of nitrogen oxide emissions in the UK and for the average diesel car, each km not driven prevents 52 mg of the substance entering the atmosphere. 

COVID-19 Reveals Unexpected Benefit- Reduced Emissions
Satellite data showing a reduction in the presence of nitrogen oxide over Europe (Source: Copernicus Sentinel data processed by the ESA).

Air Pollution Likely to Increase Coronavirus Death Rate

Experts have said that the health damage inflicted on people by long-standing air pollution from greenhouse gas emissions in cities is likely to increase the death rate from COVID-19 infections. 

Dirty air can cause lung and heart damage, and is responsible for at least 8 million early deaths a year. This means that respiratory infections, such as COVID-19, may have a more serious impact on those in cities and exposed to toxic fumes than others. 

Strict confinement measures in China and Italy have led to falls in air pollution. A preliminary calculation by a US expert suggests that tens of thousands of premature deaths from air pollution may have been avoided by the cleaner air in China. 

“Patients with chronic lung and heart conditions caused or worsened by long-term exposure to air pollution are less able to fight off lung infections and more likely to die. This is likely also the case for Covid-19,” said Sara De Matteis, at Cagliari University, Italy, and a member of the environmental health committee of the European Respiratory Society. “By lowering air pollution levels we can help the most vulnerable in their fight against this and any possible future pandemics.”

Scientists who analysed the SARS coronavirus outbreak in China in 2003 found that infected people who lived in areas with more air pollution were twice as likely to die as those in less polluted places. 

According to the Global Exposure Mortality Model (GEMM) developed by Bernett et al., (2018) scientists are now able to estimate the number of premature deaths from air pollution, as well as the number of premature deaths prevented because of reduced pollution levels.  

COVID-19 Reveals Unexpected Benefit- Reduced Emissions
GEMM describes the magnitude of the association between PM2.5 exposure and the probability of death in a concentration-response relationship known as the Hazard Ratio (Source: Bernett et. al, 2018).

It is estimated that the 3 weeks of reduced emissions in China during the COVID-19 outbreak may have saved 77 000 lives in the nation, mainly in the industrial region where the exposure to PM2.5 would have been highest. The actual number of lives saved may be a lot higher because people are staying at home more, which reduces their exposure to air pollutants significantly. However, it is important to note that this is difficult to quantify as it is purely statistical and associated illnesses from air pollution have long-term effects. The number of traffic accidents have also dropped. Even without the reduced emissions, the policy that made the wearing of masks in public spaces compulsory has also helped reduce exposure to pollutants; the masks also help to prevent the spread of the common cold and flu as shown by research in Hong Kong.

The experts are quick to clarify, however, that these claims are not to say that the pandemic can be seen as good for health. 

The aggressive measures taken by China and Italy to contain the COVID-19 outbreak that have resulted in reduced emissions show that it is possible to reduce emissions on a mass scale. However, the outbreak has also caused a large drop in fossil fuel demand, lowering the oil price, which may hinder the development of renewable energy. 

A regressive agricultural policy might be hindering Europe’s quest to become carbon neutral. 

The Problem with the European Union’s Agricultural Policy

The European Union claims to be a leader in implementing climate change mitigation strategies. Under the Paris agreement, it has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% and produce 32% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. The European Commission’s new President Ursula von der Leyen wants to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. 

However, the EU has ignored a key area in its fight against climate change: agriculture, which is responsible for about 10% of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions. Its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), experts warn, encourages environmentally destructive farming practices that cause large scale emissions and the degradation of natural resources at an alarming rate. The continent’s rich biodiversity has also suffered because of those practices.

Launched in 1962 to sustain the EU’s food supplies by boosting the productivity of farmlands, the CAP is a cornerstone of Europe’s agricultural policy. With a budget of more than €58 billion a year, it provides financial support to some 12 million farmers across Europe.

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A report by Alliance Environnement, a union of environmental advocacy groups, finds that the CAP has allowed farmers to plough up permanent grasslands, thus releasing large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It also allowed large-scale cultivation on peatlands which store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. 

Wetlands in Europe were species-rich habitats performing valuable ecosystem services such as flood protection, water quality enhancement, food chain support, and carbon sequestration. However, the CAP encouraged farmers to convert vast tracts of wetlands into agricultural lands causing significant biodiversity loss. Intensive use of pesticides has also led to species loss in many parts of Europe including France, which receives the largest agricultural subsidy under CAP.

An investigation by Greenpeace revealed that CAP funds provide direct incentives for the widespread use of harmful and polluting agricultural practices. More than half of the farms examined by Greenpeace in seven EU countries had received payments totaling €104 million despite being the highest emitters of ammonia in their countries. Ammonia runoff from fertilisers and slurry manure has led to the rapid growth of algae in rivers, lakes, and oceans in Europe choking plants and animals of oxygen as well as causing air pollution.

Another report reveals the EU’s farming sector has shown no decline in emissions since 2010 due to a lack of effective environmental regulations in the CAP. Even if an individual state wanted to introduce new regulations in the agricultural sector, CAP provisions would not allow for them.

According to WWF, CAP has done very little to effectively support low-carbon and nature-friendly farming because it only supports market-driven high-input farming practices whilst disregarding climate commitments. It has demanded major reforms in the EU’s agricultural policy to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint.

“We can achieve wins for both the climate and the farming sector’s sustainability by cutting emissions rapidly, and adopting practices that help store more carbon in soils and landscapes,” says Imke Lübbeke, head of climate and energy, WWF. “The EU’s draft long term climate strategy shows that agriculture can and should do more to achieve net-zero emissions in Europe.”

Efforts to fix CAP are hampered by a lack of political consensus among the member states. A recent meeting of EU agriculture ministers to revise the CAP with green architecture and eco-schemes failed to yield any positive results. The new amendments and proposals are a source of political divisiveness among the member states.

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