Science·What on Earth?

'People will make a sacrifice for the common good': How the fight against COVID-19 could extend to climate

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at how COVID-19 is affecting efforts to move to a low-carbon economy, how lockdowns are impacting power demand in the EU and the role of wild markets in the spread of infectious diseases.

Also: Power demand in Europe drops amid coronavirus lockdowns

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • 'People will make a sacrifice for the common good': How the fight against COVID-19 could extend to climate action
  • Coronavirus lockdowns are leading to less power demand in Europe
  • The deadly connection between wildlife markets and infectious diseases

'People will make a sacrifice for the common good': How the fight against COVID-19 could extend to climate action

(ECW Press)

In recent years, there has been significant momentum in the private sector to confront climate change. But the economic fallout of the coronavirus outbreak presents a significant challenge. Andre Mayer spoke to Tom Rand, the Toronto-based author of the new book The Case for Climate Capitalism: Economic Solutions for a Planet in Crisis, about environmental action at a time when the world is preoccupied with a more immediate threat.

Going into 2020, climate change was the biggest issue facing the world. COVID-19 has obviously changed the focus. What trends are you seeing in the way the business world is approaching climate action now?

It's interesting to see telecommuting finally coming into its own. Not only are we avoiding getting on a plane for board meetings, but we're getting more effective at working from home. There are limits – but it's clearly possible to eliminate a large portion of business travel (a third to a half?) and work from home a couple of days a week. That would be a huge cut in carbon emissions and urban traffic.

Are any Canadian trends especially telling?

Canada has been hit doubly hard, and our heavy oil industry is under an existential threat. To my mind, COVID accelerated trends that were already inevitable over the long term: technology is the primary threat to heavy oil, not climate policy. Alberta's heavy oil has long dominated our national dialogue, and sucks up an awful lot of political oxygen – far more than is warranted by its relatively small contribution to the national economy. It's time to start talking about future economic trends – like e-vehicles, renewables and emerging telecommuting technologies. Perhaps this crisis will force us to look forward to economic opportunity, instead of being distracted by what's in the rear-view mirror.

Do you think the coronavirus pandemic could have a lasting negative impact on climate action?

We've certainly emptied our public coffers. The cost of COVID far outstrips any climate effort I've ever seen, and it will be even harder to access public funds on the climate fight. But culture is just as important: perhaps our immediate fears over the pandemic, and the massive failure in the United States to prepare for it, will increase our respect for the experts ringing the climate alarm bells. What's become clear over the past few weeks is the sense that we're all in this together and must look to an empowered public sector to address systemic risks – like pandemics or climate. In the short term, we might continue with behaviours that reduce emissions, like avoiding unnecessary travel and working from home more.

Does the outbreak jeopardize investment in green projects?

I see little over the long term to affect the build-out of green projects. These things are getting built because they're a better deal than fossil fuel counterparts, not because they're goody-goody.

Your book argues that capitalism can have a significant role in creating a low-carbon world. How so?

Innovation, capital, jobs, technology – all of these are driven primarily by market forces. As we see with COVID, the public sector can (and must) provide a backstop to an economic crisis, but it can't replace all that economic activity. At the same time, the business community must acknowledge that nibbling around the edges of our economy is not a sufficiently robust reaction to climate. Capitalism must be fundamentally rewired to address climate risk.

Are there any lessons to take from governmental responses to coronavirus that could be applied to climate?

When you can articulate a risk appropriately, people will make a sacrifice for the common good. Humans are fundamentally caring and decent. No one wants to unleash destabilizing forces that bring economic ruin. Only a sociopath would deny the need to address climate risk, just as only a sociopath wouldn't endorse behaviours like physical isolation that reduce coronavirus risk.

This interview was conducted by email. It has been edited and condensed.

Reader feedback

Last week, we asked you how you're managing to stay green while staying (mostly) indoors. Here are some of your responses.

"What do I do in this time of social distancing to stay green? I increase the size of my vegetable garden," said Monika Caemmerer.

Paul Peckford wrote: "I have not been driving my vehicle, but instead walking virtually every day! Feels good to do my small part at this time."

"So often lack of time is the reason why people don't make green choices," said Theresa Jantzen Reed. "Now that we have a ton of extra time, we are doing the following: hang-drying all of our clothes instead of using the dryer, started lettuce/greens in repurposed plastic containers from our house (i.e. yogurt containers), using cereal bag plastic in place of plastic bags/wrap, shredding kids art paper into compost and we've parked our vehicles and are using foot or bike to pick up essentials."

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Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

The Big Picture: Drops in power demand

Coronavirus-related lockdowns around the world are having a demonstrable impact on outdoor life and air quality. While it's fair to assume that more people are turning to online streaming to pass the time at home, reduced business activity is having a palpable effect on overall power demand. In figures compiled by the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity and the British climate think-tank Ember, week-over-week electricity use in Europe  dropped precipitously, most notably in Italy and Spain. The graphic below captures the decrease in demand between the weeks of March 9-15 and 16-22.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Wildlife markets 'a perfect opportunity' for disease transmission

(Aaron Gekoski/World Animal Protection)

The continued existence of wildlife markets, which are considered potential breeding grounds for the spread of harmful viruses, means it's just a matter of time before the world is hit with another deadly pandemic, some scientists suggest.

"If we do not deal with this, there is nothing to say that we could not in 18 months' time have another outbreak, and it could be worse," said Kerry Bowman, an assistant professor and bioethicist at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Scientists believe the novel coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19 emerged from one of these wildlife markets — also known as "wet markets" — in the Chinese city of Wuhan, possibly through an infected bat.

Bats are just one of the animals that are sold at these markets, where customers come to purchase domestic livestock and wildlife, including pigs, chickens, civet cats, porcupines and pangolins.

Bowman said the main concern with these markets is a spillover event, when viruses transfer from one species to another and then cross over to humans.

In terms of the general concepts of infectious diseases, wildlife markets are "a perfect opportunity for the mixing of bacteria and viruses as well as transmission to other groups," said Jason Stull, assistant professor at the University of Prince Edward Island's Atlantic Veterinary College.

Not only that, stress and malnutrition reduce the immune system of animals and potentially exacerbate this problem, Stull said. For example, an animal under duress may be more likely to shed higher amounts of virus. "All of these things likely can contribute to movement back and forth of diseases."

According to the EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based organization that conducts scientific research into emerging infectious diseases, about three-fourths of all such diseases are somehow linked to wildlife.

William Karesh, executive vice-president for health and policy at the EcoHealth Alliance, said the current coronavirus outbreak was likely spread in two possible ways. It could have been a wild animal being sold in the market that contaminated the market. It's also possible that a vendor in the market was infected somewhere else and then infected customers.

The animals that end up in the market are coming from two places — hunted in the wild or bred on farms. 

Bowman said there are deep cultural roots with this industry — thousands of years of tradition of eating wild animals. As well, the animals are used for traditional Chinese medicine, luxury goods and the pet trade.

"What's really changed is that this has gone from occasional domestic use with emerging populations in combination with the burgeoning wealth to a massive commercial enterprise," Bowman said.

Karesh said ending these practices will take time, likely generations, and can only be done through education and helping countries improve their food systems.

He suggested that instead of banning all wildlife trade, countries should focus on those animals that are more likely to have viruses that can be transmitted to humans — like rodents, bats and non-human primates.

He said the international community must come to grips with the growing and unsustainable use of wildlife, or we will "continue to see pandemics."

"There are three to five emerging diseases every year, and only by luck and the grace of God ... they don't turn into pandemics each time."

Mark Gollom

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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