Analysis: Earth DayEarth Day

When coronavirus curbs end, will we go back to abusing planet Earth?

The 50th annual Earth Day on Wednesday is a good time to think about the links between pandemics and climate change

Sue Surkes

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

People and students hold placards and a banner showing 16-year-old Swedish political activist Greta Thunberg, who seeks to stop global warming and climate change, as they take part in a protest against global warming in central Rome on March 15, 2019. (Andreas Solaro/AFP)
People and students hold placards and a banner showing 16-year-old Swedish political activist Greta Thunberg, who seeks to stop global warming and climate change, as they take part in a protest against global warming in central Rome on March 15, 2019. (Andreas Solaro/AFP)

Coronavirus has been both good and bad for the climate and the environment, that other great cause for crisis in our times, which is highlighted on Wednesday with the marking of the 50th annual Earth Day.

On the plus side, most governments — even the climate-denying ones — have been basing health policy on what the scientists tell them.

Lockdowns of humans have enabled wildlife to thrive. Dramatic drops in industrial activit and transportation have meant cleaner air than many people can remember. The world’s citizens have learned to consume less and eat healthier food. And China and Vietnam have closed down wildlife markets of the sort that brought us COVID-19, in which rats, bats, squirrels, porcupines, pangolins, primates and other species are squeezed into stacks of cages, defecating fear and viruses onto one another before they are slaughtered for meat. More Asian countries are expected to follow.

On the down side, the pandemic has led to the postponement of several global conservation conferences, among them COP26, the annual United Nations Convention on Climate, which was set to take place in Scotland; the International Union for Conservation of Nature world congress; COP15, the bi-yearly meeting of the UN Convention on Biodiversity; and negotiations for a new treaty to govern the high seas.

Health officials inspect bats to be confiscated and culled in the wake of coronavirus outbreak at a live animal market in Solo, Central Java, Indonesia, March 14, 2020. (AP Photo)

For high-level negotiators, as well as for ordinary climate activists from Greta Thunberg (remember her?) down, digital communication lacks the impact of millions taking to the streets. On Wednesday, livestreamed activities will try to put climate change back onto an agenda dominated by the coronavirus. But loud, physical protests are much harder for the decision makers to ignore.

So what can we expect from here? With the gradual relief of coronavirus restrictions, will we go back to our bad old ways or will our behavior change?

It’s the economy, stupid

Climate change is driven by growth economies. These encourage demand for more and more products, whose manufacture and transport require more and more energy and whose disposal creates more and more waste, with pollution created at every stage.

With 75% of new infectious diseases being transmitted from animals to humans, we know that the causes of pandemics and climate problems are interconnected.

We also know that man-made climate problems such as pollution are far more dangerous than many of the pandemics.

Pollution seen from an unrecognized Bedouin village close to the Ramat Hovav industrial zone in southern Israel, December 28, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/FLASH90)

The World Health Organization estimates that three million people die every year from air-pollution-related illnesses (the figure for tiny Israel is around 2,500) — which, at this point at least, far exceeds the numbers expected to die from the coronavirus.

But, overwhelmed by the pandemic, governments have been unable, unwilling, or both, to investigate this link. And they are unprepared, in the short term at least, to integrate lockdown changes — such as increasing work from home, which reduces transportation-driven pollution — into a post-coronavirus strategy that could benefit the earth.

Making the right noises

The right kind of noises are coming out of some of the big international institutions.

On April 16, for example, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told EU lawmakers in Brussels that exposure to the problems of global supply chains during the pandemic demanded a move to a circular economy — where one industry’s waste is another industry’s raw material — to strengthen the bloc’s independence and resilience.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks during a press briefing at United Nations Headquarters in New York City, on February 4, 2020. (Angela Weiss / AFP)

On Tuesday,  delivering a message prior to Earth Day, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that while all eyes were on the pandemic, “there is another deep emergency — the planet’s unfolding environmental crisis.” He added, “The current crisis is an unprecedented wake-up call. We need to turn the recovery into a real opportunity to do things right for the future.”

He proposed six climate-related actions to shape the recovery from the coronavirus and the work ahead. Among these were directing the huge amounts of money expected to be made available to jump-start the world economy to jobs and businesses that are clean and green; using public funds “to invest in the future, not the past,” and in “sustainable sectors and projects that help the environment and the climate. Fossil fuel subsidies must end and polluters must start paying for their pollution.” Climate risks and opportunities had to be incorporated into the financial system, he said, as well as into all aspects of public policymaking and infrastructure.

An aerial view of solar panels near the southern resort city of Eilat. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

“Greenhouse gases, just like viruses, do not respect national boundaries,” Guterres concluded. “On this Earth Day, please join me in demanding a healthy and resilient future for people and planet alike.”

On the ground, though, US President Donald Trump has continued his battle to undo Obama-era environmental progress, relaxing environmental laws and fines during the pandemic and essentially rubber stamping, via the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the freedom for companies to pollute at will for the time being and proposing easing controls on power-plant releases of mercury.

Handing out money without criteria

In Israel, the Knesset Economics Committee was reportedly preparing on Sunday to dish out NIS 6 ($1.6) billion of taxpayers’ money to large companies with a turnover of more than NIS 200 ($56.3) million a year without specifying any criteria, let alone green ones.

Linor Deutsch, head of Lobby99. (Facebook)

Linor Deutsch, who heads the crowd-funded Lobby99, which pressures government on behalf of the public, told The Times of Israel that her organization only heard on Friday morning that the committee was planning a debate on the massive bailout sum for Sunday and that “if things are planned with such urgency, there’s usually something interesting going on.” Participating via Zoom, she said that she was shocked to discover that no criteria for the allocations had been drawn up and that it was only following her intervention, and questions asked by MKs with whom she was coordinating, that the committee asked the Finance Ministry to submit criteria that same day. The ministry drew up a list of criteria much shorter than that proposed by Deutsch. Neither list referred in any way to environmental considerations.

It remains to be seen whether the government will try to bail out industrialists such as gas tycoon Yitzhak Tshuva, whose Delek Group and its subsidiary Delek Drilling have been bleeding losses.

Pressure to relax environmental regulation

Environmental activists fear that attempts last year by the Prime Minister’s Office to water down the Environmental Protection Ministry’s authority to issue environmental regulations and to force it to weigh economic considerations in its decision-making are being discussed again, against the backdrop of the coronavirus and its impact on industry.

Indeed, paragraph 32 in the coalition agreement signed this week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz specifies that a ministerial committee will be established under the two parties’ joint leadership to examine reducing regulations, although it does not specify any sectors.

Both the Manufacturers Association and the Israeli Institute of Energy and the Environment (originally named the Israel Institute of Petroleum and Energy) are understood to be fiercely lobbying for the relaxation of environmental rules, and for a halt to surprise site visits by environmental inspectors.

Environmental Protection Ministry Director General Guy Samet. (Screenshot)

Environmental Protection Ministry director Guy Samet has refused to stop the unannounced site visits, taking relatively small steps to help businesses by extending permits until the pandemic panic is over.

But unlike the Energy Ministry, which is working at 50 percent capacity, the Environment Ministry is working at only 30% of its manpower. This has reduced the barely 30-strong team of environmental inspectors to just a handful, so that surprise visits are unlikely at most factories anyway. The remaining inspectors were either sent home on leave or told to join the regular police to monitor coronovirus violations.

Fossil fuels

One of the more worrying outcomes of the COVID-19 crisis that, on the face of it, appeared to be positive, has been the monumental fall in oil prices because of the virus-related drop in demand. On Monday, the oil price went negative, meaning storing oil now costs more than the oil itself.

According to the International Energy Authority, a decline in revenues from oil and gas operations could mean that companies pay less attention to efforts to tackle methane emissions, which are far more dangerous for global warming. “Low natural gas prices may lead to increases in flaring or venting, and regulatory oversight of oil and gas operations could be scaled back.”

Victor Weis. (Courtesy)

Writing on Facebook in Hebrew earlier this week, Victor Weis, director of the Heschel Center for Sustainability, noted that all countries, including Israel, had bought oil at bargain prices and filled every possible tank to the extent that the oil producers, who cannot just stop production, are now willing pay to have the oil taken off their hands.

“The situation may slow the pace of renewable energy installations,” he wrote, after a record-breaking year last year for the installation of solar panels which, at that point, were the cheapest energy option.

“Whoever’s looking at the short term and wants to gather wealth and popularity is likely to invest in connecting gas-driven power stations to oil, increase the storage capacity for oil, and even encourage the development of more roads so that there will be room for new cars to stand for hours in new traffic jams so that more gas will be burned so that people will pay more in taxes to fill the coffers of the treasury faster so that everyone will applaud the clever government that saved the economy from the crisis so quickly.”

But, he added, “Anyone who looks to the future realizes that investing in oil-based infrastructure is behind the times and, in the end, will not only not return the investment but will lose out. Even worse, they’ll save [us] from one crisis only to plunge us into another much bigger one, faster — the climate crisis. Which path do you think Israel will take?”

Likud holds onto energy, environmental protection portfolios

The reasons for Netanyahu’s determination, in coalition talks, to retain for his Likud party the ministries of energy and environmental protection during the first 18 months of the leadership rotation will doubtless emerge as time goes on.

Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Environmental organizations have been unimpressed with Likud’s part time Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who has also served as Jerusalem Affairs Minister and has spent a considerable amount of his time over the past year and a bit involved in various coalition negotiations. If interest in the subject were the criteria, the post might have gone to animal rights and environmental advocate Micky Haimovitch, who has made it clear from the outset that her decision to quit television and enter politics with the Blue and White party was motivated by her passions.

Miki Haimovich with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

(The Agriculture Ministry will go to Gantz’s party right away, increasing the likelihood that live shipments of animals to Israel for fattening and slaughter will gradually stop and that animal welfare will move to the Environmental Protection Ministry).

Netanyahu loyalist Yuval Steinitz, up until now the energy minister, has doggedly pushed the case for natural gas, despite widespread pressure to move more quickly to renewables.

Last month, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, the government quietly approved a controversial plan to subsidize just under half the costs of a new pipeline for natural gas with taxpayers’ money to help a private consortium channel natural gas from Israel to Egypt as part of a bilateral deal, estimated to be worth $19.5 billion, signed last year. Critics say the deal benefits the gas companies and not Israeli citizens.

Can public health and climate change be dealt with separately?

Amit Bracha, executive director of the environmental advocacy organization Adam Teva V’Din, wrote Monday to the prime minister urging him, as part of a plan to ease coronavirus regulations, to prepare a strategic, multiyear plan that balances economic needs with those of environmental protection, public health and quality of life.

A Gordian knot tied the environment and public health together, Bracha went on, and it was known that Israel is predicted to be one of the countries that will suffer most from global warming.

Amit Bracha, executive director, Adam Teva V’Din. (Courtesy)

“It’s no secret that a substantial quantity of the underlying illnesses that speed up deaths resulting from coronavirus infection and other infections result from environmental exposure to chronic air pollution, chemicals and pesticides, poor infrastructure in population centers and more. In light of that, the next world crisis, the environmental crisis, is knocking on humanity’s door, including on Israel’s door.”

But, Bracha went on, the “Corona Exit Team,” headed by the National Security Council, “clearly lacks the ability to meet the needs described.” The team was composed mainly of physicists, with an absolute male majority, he said. It lacked experts in urban planning, in public health and exposure to environmental pollution, as well as experts in economics able to take into account the external costs and benefits of balancing development and protecting public health.

One of the keys to a successful coronavirus exit strategy was increasing regulations for public health and environmental protection rather than weakening them, promoting long-term plans to reduce chronic exposure to environmental pollution, transitioning to a clean and renewable energy-based economy, and creating economic incentives to do so.

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