Falling pollution 'not a silver lining' of coronavirus, says UN environment head

Inger Andersen wrote that the shutdowns to contain the pandemic will not avert climate change but post-Covid recovery could spur green development

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As companies around the world close factories, shops and offices, planes sit idly on the tarmac and millions around the world stay home to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, air pollution and co2 emissions have decreased.

But while these “temporary” benefits are seen in clear skies over the usually smog-ridden Indian capital or in the satellite images of pollution data above the northern Italian powerhouse, the head of the United Nation’s Environment Programme has cautioned that it is not a “silver lining” of the coronavirus pandemic.

Coronavirus timelapse: emissions drop over Italy

Coronavirus timelapse: emissions drop over Italy

“Visible, positive impacts – whether through improved air quality or reduced greenhouse gas emissions – are but temporary, because they come on the back of tragic economic slowdown and human distress,” Inger Andersen wrote in an open letter this week.

She highlighted how the pandemic will lead to a massive increase in the amounts of medical and hazardous waste generated and said that studies point out that fossil fuel use would need to be cut by 10 per cent for an entire year to make a difference to the global carbon dioxide levels.

Therefore, she said, “any positive environmental impact in the wake of this abhorrent pandemic, must, therefore, be in our changing our production and consumption habits towards cleaner and greener.”

She said that the massive global financial rescue packages being rolled out also open the opportunity, once the pandemic has been brought under control, to bring in green and renewable development and spur systemic changes needed to tackle man-made climate change.

She also said that a cleaner, greener world will make humanity safer from viruses such as Covid-19.

“As we continue to encroach on fragile ecological ecosystems, we bring humans into ever-greater contact with wildlife,” she said. “Around 75 per cent of new and infectious diseases are zoonotic [pathogens that transfer from animals to humans].”

“The better we manage nature, the better we manage human health,” Ms Andersen wrote.  “An important pillar in our post-Covid recovery plan must be to arrive at an ambitious, measurable and inclusive framework, because keeping nature-rich, diverse and flourishing is part and parcel of our life’s support system."