from the world's big
Less pollution during COVID-19 is not a 'silver lining', says UN environment chief
The environmental benefits of the coronavirus pandemic are only temporary, warns the head of the UN Environment Programme.
- Satellite imagery shows that significantly lower air pollution over much of the planet in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- As the U.S. was preparing an economic stimulus package for struggling Americans, some lawmakers tried in vain to include environmental provisions.
- Whether now is an appropriate time to consider restructuring the economy and energy infrastructure is a controversial topic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has produced surreal images: Mask-wearing shoppers stocking up on toilet paper and canned food. City streets, once bustling, now empty. Semi-trucks parked on sidewalks, converted into temporary morgues.
But zoom out far enough, and the images of the pandemic tell a different story — one with clearer skies.
NASA and the European Space Agency recently released satellite imagery showing how the slowing of the global economy has significantly reduced air pollution over China, Italy, the U.S., and other nations. The images show drastic drops in nitrogen dioxide, which is produced mainly by cars, trucks, buses, power plants, and off-road equipment, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
However, the head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Inger Andersen, warns against viewing this as a "silver lining."
"And as we inch from a 'war-time' response to 'building back better,' we need to take on board the environmental signals and what they mean for our future and wellbeing, because COVID-19 is by no means a 'silver lining' for the environment," Andersen wrote in a recent blog post. "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."
The relationship between pandemics and the environment
Andersen noted two key reasons why the environment is directly relevant to the spread of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. First, as human development continues to creep into new ecosystems, it's bound to put people in close contact with wildlife, which is how zoonotic viruses spread.
"According to IPBES, we have seen 100 million hectares of agricultural expansion in the tropics between 1980 and 2000, roughly equal to the size of France and Germany combined," Andersen wrote. "The 'wild' must be kept 'wild.' It is time to restore our forests, stop deforestation, invest in the management of protected areas, and propel markets for deforestation-free products. Where the legal wildlife trade chain exists, we need to do a far better job of improving hygiene conditions."
The blog post also noted that global warming is making it easier for dangerous microbes to survive in the environment.
Changes in temperature, humidity & seasonality directly affect the survival of microbes in the environment; & evide… https://t.co/hd41TxleUX— UN Environment Programme (@UN Environment Programme)1586073608.0
For Anderson, the pandemic presents an opportunity to redirect the economy toward a greener future:
"So, in the aftermath of the crisis, when economic stimulus packages composed of infrastructure are designed, there is a real opportunity to meet that demand with green packages of renewable energy investments, smart buildings, green and public transport, etc.."
When the U.S. government was preparing its recent economic stimulus package, House Democrats sought to include some environmental provisions, such as requiring airlines to lower emissions, putting $100 million toward developing sustainable aviation fuels, and allocating aid money for the national wind and solar industries.
Ultimately, these measures didn't make it into the package. Some lawmakers and commentators criticized Democrats for trying to weave environmental protections into an urgently needed bill designed to help financially struggling Americans. (Although, to be sure, Republicans had pet projects of their own which they sought to include in the bill.)
Currently, it's unclear whether measures that would aid U.S. renewable energy companies will be included in future stimulus packages.
The pandemic is a 'portal'
As the economy continues to spiral and U.S. unemployment reaches a record high, is now the time to consider making massive changes to the ways we envision our society? One interesting answer comes from Indian author Arundhati Roy.
In a recent piece in the Financial Times, Roy writes that the pandemic is a "portal, a gateway between one world and the next." Roy makes no explicit mention of the environment or climate change, and he's not necessarily suggesting that efforts to restructure society should take priority over, say, aid packages to citizens. But he does argue that we shouldn't aim to return to "normality" as the global community begins to repair the damage caused by the pandemic:
"Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to 'normality', trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it."
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Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Here's why you might eat greenhouse gases in the future.
- The company's protein powder, "Solein," is similar in form and taste to wheat flour.
- Based on a concept developed by NASA, the product has wide potential as a carbon-neutral source of protein.
- The man-made "meat" industry just got even more interesting.
Seriously sustainable<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MDIzNS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMjM4NTMzMX0.BCEfYnn6C3z1zUHIS38xOWjXktgamNBi5iyqklSMYK8/img.png?width=980" id="ea524" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="50533380eeb18eb5833b6b6aa3abec38" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Solar Foods<p>Solar Foods makes Solein by extracting CO₂ from air using <a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/90356326/we-have-the-tech-to-suck-co2-from-the-air-but-can-it-suck-enough-to-make-a-difference" target="_blank">carbon-capture technology</a>, and then combines it with water, nutrients and vitamins, using 100 percent renewable solar energy from partner <a href="https://www.fortum.com" target="_blank">Fortum</a> to promote a natural fermentation process similar to the one that produces yeast and lactic acid bacteria.</p><p>When the company claims its single-celled protein is "free from agricultural limitations," they're not kidding. Being produced indoors means Solar Foods is not dependent on arable land, water (i.e., rain), or favorable weather.</p><p>The company is already working with the European Space Agency to develop foods for off-planet production and consumption. (The idea for Solein actually began at NASA.) They also see potential in bringing protein production to areas whose climate or ground conditions make conventional agriculture impossible.</p><p>And let's not forget all those <a href="https://www.bk.com/menu-item/impossible-whopper" target="_blank">beef-free burgers</a> based on pea and soy proteins currently gaining popularity. The environmental challenge of scaling up the supply of those plants to meet their high demand may provide an opening for the completely renewable Solein — the company could provide companies that produce animal-free "meats," such as <a href="https://www.beyondmeat.com/products/" target="_blank">Beyond Meat</a> and <a href="https://impossiblefoods.com" target="_blank">Impossible Foods</a>, a way to further reduce their environmental impact.</p>
The larger promise<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MDI0MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NjU4MTg2OX0.7dZZYT5WEV_EupBuLVFwHynarTiz8RYR9aJtC6Ts2C4/img.jpg?width=980" id="3415d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2e6eebe06d795f844752f9e9d30040d7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Solar Foods<p>The impact of the beef — and for that matter, poultry, pork, and fish — industries on our planet is widely recognized as one of the main drivers behind climate change, pollution, habitat loss, and antibiotic-resistant illness. From the cutting down of rainforests for cattle-grazing land, to runoff from factory farming of livestock and plants, to the disruption of the marine food chain, to the overuse of antibiotics in food animals, it's been disastrous.</p><p>The advent of a promising source of protein derived from two of the most renewable things we have, CO₂ and sunlight, <a href="https://solarfoods.fi/environmental-impact/" target="_blank">gets us out of the planet-destruction business</a> at the same time as it offers the promise of a stable, long-term solution to one of the world's most fundamental nutritional needs.</p>
Solar Foods' timetable<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MTEzMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5OTU1OTMwMn0.wnXh56iO_77x2XKV2uIPf78BKw4AJLUpmiyq_JBVGvo/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=172%2C146%2C62%2C135&height=700" id="0297c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="125c9a98ec818f5c241fa28ef1423e67" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Lubsan / Shutterstock / Big Think<p>While company plans are always moderated by unforeseen events — including the availability of sufficient funding — Solar Foods plans a global commercial rollout for Solein in 2021 and to be producing two million meals annually, with a revenue of $800 million to $1.2 billion by 2023. By 2050, they hope to be providing sustenance to 9 billion people as part of a $500 billion protein market.</p><p>The project began in 2018, and this year, they anticipate achieving three things: Launching Solein (check), beginning the approval process certifying its safety as a Novel Food in the EU, and publishing plans for a 1,000-metric ton-per-year factory capable of producing 500 million meals annually.</p>
The protein powder Solein. Image source: SOLAR FOODS
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