JURIST Guest Columnists Sakshi Agarwal and Aniket Sachan, both third year students at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow, India, discuss the potential effects of COVID-19 on long term efforts to combat climate change...
COVID-19, which has brought human life to a standstill across the globe, is not a climate-change pandemic. The worldwide increase of infectious disease is the result of a changed human lifestyle that has consequently altered the biological ecosystem. The spread of infectious agents because of climate conditions was discovered in the later part of the nineteenth century. Extreme changes in climatic conditions pose a threat to human health because they affect the determinants of human health which include air quality, supply of safe drinking water, nutrition level in food, secure shelter, etc. The World Health Organization (WHO) back in 2018 said that climate change will cause around 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat exhaustion. However, COVID-19 has now been the reason for 297,220 deaths in less than six months around the globe.
In addition to demonstrating our failure to combat the pandemic, the current outbreak is also a harbinger for a deadly future where many such diseases may be unshackled due to a rampant rise in Earth’s temperature every year. Climate change from pollution and other human activities is a significant cause for worry. It not only has lead to ozone depletion thereby making the population susceptible to harmful solar rays, but also has loomed over the planet as an impending threat in the form of other disastrous changes. The coronavirus pandemic is a frightening prelude for potential pandemics triggered by the ongoing deep destabilization of the natural environment through climate change.
Climate Change Amid COVID-19
With reduced human activities all around the world, there have been certain positive changes in climatic conditions. This is due to the worldwide lockdown restricting human movement and decreasing transportation, electricity demands and industrial activity. Thus, it has provided us with an opportunity to combat climate change. Addressing climate change is vital to reduce evolving health risks. It has been reported that children and elderly people are more vulnerable to the health challenges posed by climate change. Climate change affects human health in two primary ways: firstly, by altering the gravity of health problems through changed climatic conditions, and secondly, the discovery of new unforeseen health problems. The following are some examples of positive climate change caused by COVID-19.
Control of the Emission of Greenhouse Gases
Because of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on transportation and business, air pollution has fallen in several areas. As per the reports of the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, methods such as quarantines and travel bans which were enforced by governments across the globe have resulted in a 25 percent reduction of carbon emissions in China. In fact, a study in the USA indicates that carbon monoxide levels have dropped by 50 percent since 2019. This subsequent carbon emission mitigation is a boon that is expected to save a total of 77,000 lives. However, there is also another prevalent viewpoint that this reduction in emissions will be short-lived. Many people expect that countries will easily counteract this reduction through their temptation to rehabilitate their economies after the deprivations induced by COVID-19. The costs of crude oil have fallen by almost two-thirds from last year because of limited traffic on roads amidst this lockdown. This may trigger a shift toward cleaner fuels and lead to the beginning of a sustained downward trend in the usage of crude oil.
Reduction in Air Pollution
There was also a decline in the emissions of nitrous oxide from vehicles and power plants in Italy between the months of January-March, 2020. People staying at home resulted in a reduction in motor vehicle traffic, which ultimately led to a drop in air pollution levels. As per NASA, the decline in nitrogen dioxide emissions in Wuhan has spread gradually to the rest of the country. However, this drop was not a result of the health standards as other pollutants still remained in the air. In Venice, there was an improved abundance of fish and water traffic in the canals. The Mayor of Venice explained that the improved visibility in the water was attributed to the deposition of sediments. The nationwide lockdown in India resulted in chaos and misery among the migrant and daily wage workers. Nonetheless, it also resulted in cleaner air than Delhi had seen in decades. Despite the vulnerable state of human civilization with 297,220 deaths and 4,347,921 people infected with the disease, the environment has recovered and nature is able to breathe more easily. With very limited transportation and the closure of factories, the world has witnessed improved air quality. It also has resulted in a declining risk of air-pollution borne disease like asthma and other lung infections.
The Opportunity to Meet Goals to Combat Climate Change
According to some analysts, this pandemic is providing certain countries with an opportunity to meet the objectives enshrined under the Paris Climate Agreement. Emissions have fallen due to the halt in industries and transportation. This change can be helpful to certain countries in achieving their Paris Agreement goals. Coronavirus is contributing to decreasing pollution mandated by international climate accords. It has indirectly caused nations to cut emissions that they could not have usually achieved. However, the desire to recover from the tangle of coronavirus and develop into a safer, better planet would rely not on the short-term effects to tackle the pandemic, but on policy decisions that will occur over the long run. Economic recession, declines in energy consumption and demographic changes may lead to drastic environmental effects. The strain on the Earth has abruptly lightened after decades of increasingly rising. Megacities such as Bangkok, Beijing, New Delhi and New York have registered an extraordinary decrease in pollution because of coronavirus restrictions. Delhi had previously often had an air quality index of 200 a day (far exceeding the limit of 25 recognized by the World Health Organization). However, with this nation-wide lockdown, Delhi’s 11 million automobiles have been withdrawn from the roads while factories and development have come to standstill. Thus, AQI rates have dropped gradually below 20. The task for India in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis is to prioritize its health and economic sectors. The current need is to support renewable energy.
Many people have taken social initiatives and measures to defend themselves and others from this pandemic. The fast and broad response that the world witnessed has raised a hope that quick steps on climate change might also be taken similar to this pandemic. Nobody could have anticipated the pandemic resulting in lowering of the pollution. By the reaction of people across the globe, we are witnessing a humanitarian character that shows people do care for one another. It will be an important lesson as mass cooperation would be required to deal with climate change.
Changes in infectious disease transmission patterns are likely a major consequence of climate change. Coronavirus is a global health catastrophe whose far-reaching implications are yet to be uncovered. The priority of the nations is to contain the virus and stop its spread. The current crisis requires harmonious construction between special measures and essential safeguards. The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and climate change are intimately linked. Though emissions have fallen, we must monitor the impact of the pandemic on the atmosphere and the unexpected patterns that are evolving. When we eventually overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, financial and social packages for the maintenance and ultimate resurgence of the post-pandemic global economy should promote health, fairness and protection of the environment. At present, the world is witnessing unprecedented rates of injustice, environmental destruction, destabilization of the climate, economic instability and increased risks to public safety. These critical conditions make us ponder the need to reconsider our potential measures for the future. Nations should invest in upgrading their health sector and promoting Universal Health Coverage (UHC). These measures can prove helpful in the long run to minimize the threats that will exist from the future occurrence of pandemics and climate change. We must increase our flexibility and capacity to deal with such a crisis.
COVID-19 has made us adjust our actions significantly to defend ourselves and everyone around us. It has led to increasing civil response and successful risk control through concerted action. While climate change casts longer-term health issues, it would require certain actions, which need to be taken at present to tackle future emergencies.
For more on COVID-19, see our special coverage.
Sakshi Agarwal is a third year student at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow, India.
Aniket Sachan is a third year student at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow, India.
Suggested citation: Sakshi Agarwal and Aniket Sachan, The Link Between Climate Change and Human Health, May 14, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/05/agarwal-sachan-climate-change-covid19/
This article was prepared for publication by Tim Zubizarreta, JURIST’s Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.