A closer look
As the world slowly limps back to pre-pandemic industrial activity levels, a unique opportunity exists to study the functioning of the Earth system
The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic is reasonably well understood as this virus is expected to make its way from wild bats to humans through a food market. COVID-19 is the latest in a long line of diseases that have crossed from animals to people, including HIV/AIDS, severe acute respiratory syndrome and Ebola. In fact, 60 per cent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, and of the pathogens that cause these, at least 71 per cent originate in wildlife. For any such pandemic, it is easy to realise the beginnings of these diseases but difficult to understand how the pandemic will end and what damage it will cause. Till date, there is no end in sight with the emergence of a new strain of the COVID-19 virus. The World Bank estimates that up to 115 million extra people will fall into extreme poverty (living on less than USD 1.90 per day) in 2020 owing to the economic shocks of the pandemic. This, in turn, will have significant impacts on food security, nutrition, health and environment.
It is well established that COVID-19 is already disrupting lives and livelihoods around the world. The most important consequences are the public health crisis and associated economic and humanitarian disasters, which are having historic impacts on human well-being. The scale and persistence of socioeconomic disruption represent an unprecedented modification of human interactions with the Earth system, the impacts of which will be long-lasting, widespread and varying across space and time. Almost overnight, people across the world had to change the way they live, the way they work — with many facing loss of income — commute, buy food, educate their children and other energy-consuming behaviours. It is critical for us to better understand how future societal disruptions and catastrophes could affect interactions among energy systems and other systems that serve society.
Considering the above, we can easily highlight the various links between ecologically, economically, and socially unsustainable behaviours and the outbreak and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic with reference to large-scale land-use changes — such as agricultural intensification, industrial development, mining, road building, and deforestation — and the resulting loss of habitats and biodiversity around the world, often initiated by the need to grow more food, puts people in ever closer contact with wild animals and makes the transmission of infections more likely. In this context, it is pertinent to mention that an intact ecosystem, as well as reduced contact between animals and people could prevent the transmission of wildlife diseases to humans
Like the legendary falling apple that hit Isaac Newton and led to his groundbreaking insight on the nature of gravity, COVID-19 could not only provide unintended glimpses into how complex Earth systems operate and critical role of human but also a window of opportunity for promoting sustainability transitions in consumption and production — which are desperately needed to prevent other similarly dramatic crises brought on by climate change — this goal can only be achieved with deliberate planning and carefully designed strategic communication in the public sphere. This COVID-19 crisis has explored the processes linking heterogeneous local pollutant emissions and regional atmospheric chemistry and air quality, or the relationship between global economic integration and poverty-driven environmental degradation. The uniquely pervasive disruption also has the potential to reveal novel questions about the Earth system that have not previously been raised. In this perspective, the impacts of COVID-19-related social disruption may be easily focused on two multidisciplinary pathways: energy, emissions, climate and air quality; and poverty, globalisation, food and biodiversity.
The human footprint on the Earth system is vast under usual daily life. Thereby any disorder from normal functioning of the Earth system that we can observe, needs a very large perturbation. COVID-19 has provided that perturbation. As of July 2020, approximately half the world's population has been under some version of sheltering orders that have substantially reduced human mobility and economic activity with ~70 per cent of the global workforce living in countries that have required closures for all non-essential workplaces and ~ 90 per cent living in countries with at least some required workplace closures.
The reduction of human activities, and the efforts to manage their revival, have varied around the world. The large-scale reduction in human activity will necessarily be temporary but still, there will be an opportunity to observe the return of the Earth system processes to their previous states after activity returns to something approaching pre-pandemic levels. The event, therefore, provides a unique testbed for probing hypotheses about Earth system sensitivities, feedbacks, boundaries and cascades presuming that the observing systems are in place to capture these responses.
Impacts on energy consumption, and associated emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants, are likely to cascade across timescales. In the near-term, reductions in mobility and economic activity have reduced energy use in the commercial, industrial and transportation sectors, and might have increased energy use in the residential sector. Of course, misunderstandings may have arisen with regards to declines in carbon dioxide emissions caused by COVID-19-related disruption, with some interpreting short-term reductions to suggest that austerity of energy consumption could be sufficient to curb the pace of global warming. A reduction in fossil CO2 emissions proportional to the economic decline would be dramatic relative to previous declines. Progress in understanding the carbon-cycle responses to COVID-19 will, therefore, be challenging and, at a minimum, will require new methods for tracking the unprecedented short-term perturbation in emissions through the Earth system.
Now our primary motivation is to search for insight about the basic functioning of the Earth system that could be helpful in managing and recovering from the event, and in avoiding future impacts. Analysis of the Earth system response can enable early detection of hotspots of environmental risk or degradation emerging during the event. The individual, societal and government responses to these economic effects will influence the long-term trajectory of the human footprint on the Earth system.
The current socio-economic disruption is a singular perturbation of that human footprint. Advancing understanding of this forcing, and the processes by which different components of the Earth system respond, can help to enhance robustness and resilience now and in the future.
The writer is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board. Views expressed are personal