This article by Dr.Gerstenfeld was first published at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), and republished here with the author’s consent.
Corona Crisis: Impact on the Environment
The interactions between the Coronavirus pandemic and environmental issues fall into a number of categories. One of these is the environmental consequences of measures taken to contain the virus. A second is the environmental repercussions associated with various exit strategies. Preventing climate change was an important issue in the years leading up to the virus outbreak. This has been totally overshadowed during the Corona crisis. One wonders how the climate change issue will manifest itself in post-Corona society.
One much-heard claim is that human misbehavior and neglect toward nature are responsible for the outburst of the pandemic. This is often accompanied with statements by environmentalists that if humanity does not change its behavior, outbursts of pandemics will become recurrent events. This argument will lose its validity if definitive evidence is found that the virus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China.1
The Coronavirus and measures to combat it have had a variety of direct and indirect environmental impacts. Some have been highly publicized. Suddenly, the inhabitants of Venice could see a variety of marine life in their canals. There are no tourists and boat traffic has been greatly reduced.2
On a much larger scale, the magnitude of environmental impact resulting from the closure of many industries and the extreme reduction of airline traffic is significant. The decline in car travel has also temporarily reduced air pollution. Some experts claim that it may be easier for countries to meet their Paris Climate Accord goals due to the reduction in emissions.3 This is only one side of the crisis-related environmental impact of the virus. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has relaxed ecological standards as well as rules that penalize polluters.4
The Coronavirus reality is temporary. Hopefully, it is to a large extent behind us. One may assume that government exit strategies will predominantly aim to return society’s functioning as much as possible to the pre-Corona reality. Western economies were growing, albeit slightly, and unemployment was low or not very high in most countries. A crucial factor, however, is whether there will be a second wave of the pandemic. However, exit strategies to a large extent cannot be based on that assumption.
When looking at current exit strategies it seems that the major factor, which will influence environmental decisions, realities and attitudes is how long social distancing will be maintained. The continuance of social distancing will have huge repercussions. A major question is: to what extent is social distancing practically enforceable and to what point can societies live with it?
The following analysis is based on the assumption that social distancing will be maintained for a significant time. If passengers of public transport have to keep distance from each other, local traffic in many places at certain hours of the day will not be able to meet demand. Will there be priorities for those who are allowed to use public transportation at certain hours? It is of the utmost important for the functioning of society that employees reach their place of work.
The cartoonist Matt of the British Daily Telegraph put it graphically. He drew a train on which it was written: “Please give up this train if somebody else needs it.”5
A social distancing reality will have many other consequences for public transportation. Separations of some kind will have to be created to avoid travelers using certain seats. NS, the Dutch national railway company, is working on a program for that purpose. NS is already doing trials with some trains where only part of the seats can be occupied and plastic separation screens are placed between compartments.6 The company has estimated that trains will only be able to take a quarter of the maximum passengers traveling before the outbreak of the pandemic. NS is also evaluating a special ticket for people who have crucial jobs and who have to get to their workplace. This will serve as an example of how to create priority travelers. Another issue being investigated is whether travelers are willing to reserve train seats.7
So what would non-priority would-be travelers do in this scenario? Children have to get to and from school. Dedicated buses for schools will also take less passengers. More trips will have to be made. An alternative is staggered hours for different classes.
For decades now, working remotely full-time or part time has been promoted. This concept has made some inroads in a number of countries. In the U.S, before the pandemic, 3.4% of the workforce were working at least half of the week from their home.8 During the pandemic, many more people have used Zoom as a substitute for face-to-face meetings and become familiar with it. The aftermath of the pandemic is likely to increase remote working, but certainly not to an extent that it can compensate for the decline in transportation facilities. The cost of public transport will have to increase substantially. The decline in passengers will distort the previous cost-income ratio.
What will people, who are excluded from public transport do? Many city managements want more people to cycle. A number of mayors from three continents are collaborating under the chairpersonship of the mayor of Milan to develop environmental programs for their city so that air pollution doesn’t rapidly accelerate again.9 One logical step is to make traffic routes cumbersome for through-traffic so that it avoids cities. A wellknown through road in Paris, the Rue de Rivoli will soon be closed to car traffic.10
Yet whatever measures will be taken, the use of their private car by those who own one will increase for a number of reasons and with it air pollution. As mentioned before, social distancing will require the reduction of seats on public transportation. Furthermore, if social distancing remains people will likely choose more often their own car rather than public transportation, which carries more risk of infection. Lower fuel prices will give this trend a further boost.
One cannot very well assess what this entire complex of changes will do to cities. One possibility is huge traffic jams which will bring back or even increase the air pollution which has largely disappeared during the Coronavirus period.
Air travel is a substantial polluter. In several countries it has been environmental policy to gradually replace short-term air traffic with fast trains. If the number of train seats available radically decreases, this may have an effect on these policies.
As far as longer range air traffic is concerned, demand is likely to decrease substantially. Social distancing will be an important factor as people will be together for a long time. Since seat demand is in decline, leaving empty seats is less of an issue, but comes at a cost. EasyJet has already announced that it would like to start up its activities leaving the middle seat in its planes free.11 On the other hand, the Chief Executive of the London Heathrow airport has said that social distancing at airports would mean kilometer-long queues to board each jumbo.12
Many airlines will require government help through loans and guarantees. In a market where demand is substantially down, adding additional environmental pressures on airlines may make recovery even more difficult. Yet politics push in that direction. Air France is in advanced discussion with the French government for financing13. KLM’s future has not yet been ascertained. One of the Dutch government parties, D66 wants to include an additional condition for government finance: KLM should stop traveling to holiday destinations.14 If this becomes a condition, it will be a typical example of environmental policies destroying employment, and that at a critical moment.
In light of all this, what is going to happen to the world’s emissions remains unclear. A researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environment Research in Oslo claims that estimates of global emissions will decrease not more than 0.3% in 2020, less than in the crash of 2008-09.15
There are other more fundamental problems with green policies. The conceptual ideal is sustainable growth, i.e., keeping the economy expanding while not significantly using the world’s limited resources. It has never been proven that this is possible.
There are also political aspects concerning the environment resulting from the Corona crisis and how it was handled. This can best be seen in Germany, which has a long tradition of environmental concern. The world’s first major environmental laws go back to the Nazi era. In the pre-Corona societal mood of preventing climate change, public support for the Green Party – the biggest such party in Western Europe — was increasing in the polls. In January 2020, there it was the second largest party in the country, only a few percentage points below Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, (CDU/CSU) which had fallen to 25-28%. The Green party leader, Robert Habeck, was often discussed as a possible next Chancellor.16 The way Merkel handled the Coronavirus crisis bought with it a revival of her and her party. Various polls in April gave the Christian Democrats between 37% and 38%. The Green party is not even polling half of that.17
There are many other environment-related issues that will come to the fore. The main conclusion however is that the conflict between economic and environmental interests, which was already major before the Corona crisis, will heat up further.