In an April 22 question-and-answer session, the World Health Organization declared that the ongoing global pandemic resulting from the spread of the novel Coronavirus (nCoV) has had an effect on the global efforts to mitigate climate change.
Here are some of the questions, and WHO’s answers:
Q: Will climate change make Covid-19 worse?
WHO: There is no evidence of a direct connection between climate change and the emergence or transmission of CoViD-19 disease. As the disease is now well-established in the human population, efforts should focus on reducing transmission and treating patients.
However, climate change may indirectly affect the CoViD-19 response, as it undermines environmental determinants of health, and places additional stress on health systems. More generally, most emerging infectious diseases, and almost all recent pandemics, originate in wildlife, and there is evidence that increasing human pressure on the natural environment may drive disease emergence. Strengthening health systems, improved surveillance of infectious disease in wildlife, livestock and humans, and greater protection of biodiversity and the natural environment, should reduce the risks of future outbreaks of other new diseases.
Q: Have measures to contain CoViD-19 reduced air pollution and emissions of greenhouse gases?
WHO: Air pollution is a serious health risk. It kills approximately 7 million people every year and is responsible for one third of all deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease. Over 90% of the global population lives in places where the WHO outdoor air quality guideline levels are not met, and about two-thirds of this exposure is caused by burning of fossil fuels, which also drives climate change.
Efforts to control CoViD-19 transmission have reduced economic activity and led to temporary improvements in air quality in some areas. In contrast, as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that drive climate change persist for a long time in the atmosphere, temporary emissions reductions only have a limited effect on atmospheric concentrations. Carbon dioxide levels at observing stations around the world in the first months of 2020 have been higher than in 2019.
Environmental improvements resulting from the CoViD-19 response may be reversed by a rapid expansion of polluting economic activities once the measures have ended, unless there is a clear focus to promote equity, environmental health, around a just transition to a green economy.
Any short-term environmental benefits as a result of CoViD-19 come at an unacceptable human and economic cost, and are no substitute for planned and sustained action on air quality and climate.
Q: What can the global response to CoViD-19 teach us about our response to climate change?
WHO: The CoViD-19 pandemic is a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), which has claimed lives, and severely disrupted communities. Climate change is a gradually increasing stress that may be the defining public health threat of the 21st century. Nonetheless, common lessons can be drawn:
Ensuring universal health coverage (UHC), through well-resourced, equitable health systems, is essential to protect the public from both short and long-term health threats.
Guaranteeing global health security requires an all-hazards approach to preparedness, from infectious disease outbreaks, to extreme weather events, to climate change.
Ensuring access to the environmental determinants of health, such as clean air, water and sanitation, safe and nutritious food, is an essential protection against all health risks. WHO estimates that avoidable environmental risks cause about a quarter of the global health burden.
Early action saves lives. Delay in responding to clear evidence of threats, whether from pandemics, or from climate change, increases human and socioeconomic costs.
Inequality is a major barrier in ensuring health and wellbeing, especially for the most vulnerable in society. Social and economic inequality manifests in unequal health risks. When faced with public health threats of a global scale, such as CoViD-19 or climate change, we are only as strong as our weakest health system.
Environmental advocate Rep’s 1st online discussion
Meanwhile, on May 15, the Philippine Congress’ Deputy Speaker and Antique Province Representative Loren Legarda held her first online discussion of the series “Stories for a Better Normal: Pandemic and Climate Pathways,” a virtual conversation on CoViD-19 and the climate emergency.
The series is a partnership with the Climate Change Commission (CCC), with support from the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC), The Climate Reality Project-Philippines, and Mother Earth Foundation.
The Climate Change Commission is the lead policy-making body of the government tasked to coordinate, monitor and evaluate government programs and ensure mainstreaming of climate change in national, local, and sectoral development plans towards a climate-resilient and climate-smart Philippines.
In the first episode broadcast via Facebook Live, Legarda, together with environmental lawyer Ipat Luna, Sonia Mendoza of Mother Earth Foundation, and Red Constantino of ICSC, shared environment and climate-friendly ways to implement at home and in communities, such as installing ecological comfort rooms, conducting backyard farming and edible gardens, implementing ecological solid waste management, and promoting bike sharing for health workers and frontline personnel.
“Everyone can lead sustainable lives at home. We can be climate heroes and ecological warriors of our own lives and in our homes, communities, and barangays. Let us teach and inspire our children to be better citizens of our country and the planet,” said Legarda, who authored several landmark laws for the environment and climate change such as the Clean Air Act, Climate Change Act, People’s Survival Fund Act, and the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act.
Legarda also encouraged everyone to promote safety and sustainability within their households and communities through backyard gardening, waste segregation, recycling, and upcycling.
Mendoza mentioned two zero-waste model communities, Barangay Potrero in Malabon City and Tacloban City, with a high segregation-at-source compliance rate and waste diversion rate, as she emphasized the importance of first having the right mindset.
In her native Pilipino language, Mendoza said, “First of all, the shift in their mindset, that caring for Mother Earth should come from the heart. No wasted materials if there is zero waste. Conserve resources. No leftovers on plates. Drink everything in the glass. Turn off the lights when no one is using them. Use glass when brushing teeth. Don’t mix garbage. These are the simple things that can be done every day.”
Constantino also shared the ICSC’s campaign of promoting bike sharing and donation drives to help health workers and other frontliners to get to work.
“For local governments, there need to be protected, dedicated bike lanes because, while mass transport is going to be critical to long-term development, in a situation where we have to distance ourselves, which means less seats to occupy, and the queues at the MRT/LRT, buses and jeeps are long, bicycles become very important. If we have bike lanes that are protected, dedicated, and enforced, more people will use bicycles,” said Constantino.
For environmental lawyer Ipat Luna, planting more seeds, installation of proper sewerage systems, and the adoption of a circular economy are key to eliminate wasteful practices and promote continuous use of resources.
“Let’s benefit from what we’ve learned while we’re still in our homes. We’ve become aware of the concept of time, of when we once were always in a hurry. But now being in a hurry isn’t so relevant anymore. Let’s not go back to those old habits. Let’s be more creative in our plans and actions,” said Luna.
As an online discussion to promote good health, environmental and climate-friendly, and sustainable practices, “Stories for a Better Normal” aims to change the mindset of individuals and families to lead sustainable lives towards a healthier, safer, and much better normal than we used to have.
“We cannot go back to where we were before, because if we do, then the sacrifices of the frontliners, and the lives lost here and around the world would have been for nothing. Let’s make it worthwhile, let’s show appreciation and gratitude to those who sacrificed their lives and continue to sacrifice now in fighting the war outside of our homes, by learning the lessons and not going back to the previous normal,” Legarda stressed.
“CoViD-19 and climate change is connected. They are inextricably linked, because even after CoViD there could be many more infectious diseases. If we will follow our laws on the environment, climate change, health, and sanitation, life will be better,” Legarda concluded.