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COVID-19 Provides Opportunities to Build More Sustainable Global Economies

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Dubai Future Foundation’s 12th ‘Life After COVID-19’ report spotlights environmental gains during pandemic, recommends higher uptake of modern technologies to mitigate carbon emissions

Dubai Future Foundation (DFF) has focused on climate change, one of the defining challenges of our time in its 12th ‘Life After COVID-19’ report. Titled ‘Life After COVID-19: Climate Change’, the report highlights the transient positive impact this exceptional period has had on lowering greenhouse gas emissions around the world as a result of the decline in industrial production and the contraction of economies. The series of consecutive reports anticipates the future of vital sectors in the aftermath of the ongoing global coronavirus crisis.

The report points out the late 18th century marked the onset of the First Industrial Revolution that was rapidly followed by more waves of change. As successive industrial revolutions brought with them greater momentum and development, they also led to a surge in emissions. Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere rose from 285 ppm in 1850, to 414 ppm as of April 2020. Likewise, global temperatures increased by 1° Celsius since 1850, according to the Met Office.

The consequences of a surge in temperature can be devastating, resulting in extreme weather conditions, food supply disruptions, and rising sea levels, among other alarming outcomes. The report also references a special report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the impact of global warming, in which IPCC experts pointed out that unless carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by the year 2030, we will be unable to avoid consequences that could irreversibly compromise human livelihoods.

The Dubai Future Foundation report recounts that the world came together to fight climate change and established the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that committed to reductions in emissions in 2015 through the landmark Paris Agreement.  Some 189 countries from around the world ratified the Paris Agreement, approving the lowering of global temperatures and limiting temperature rise to 1.5° Celsius. According to the World Health Organization, vehicles, power-generating plants, building heating systems, agriculture, waste incineration and industry are all major sources of ambient air pollution that lead to an estimated 4.2 million deaths every year.

COVID-19 Temporarily Improved Climate Change Levels

The report points out that the COVID-19 outbreak has suddenly and drastically changed our lives. Flights have been grounded, businesses have shut down, and people are staying home. As a result, global carbon dioxide emissions are set to decline eight percent in 2020, according to a flagship report issued by the International Energy Agency. Air pollution levels have also dropped to unprecedented levels. Locally, Abu Dhabi has reported a 62 percent reduction in nitrogen dioxide levels during the pandemic.

Governments are pouring trillions of dollars in stimulus measures into their economies to keep them afloat. Regionally, Saudi Arabia is supporting its private sector through a US$48 billion stimulus, according to a recent report by KPMG, a global professional services network and one of the world’s big four accounting organizations. The UAE is providing AED126.5 billion (US$34.4 billion) in economic stimulus to overcome the impact of COVID-19. These funds can be directed towards initiatives that not only rescue economies but also address climate change.

The report also highlights that in most parts of the world, including the Middle East, renewables are now the cheapest source of power generation, and are likely to be even more cost-effective when costs to the environment are factored in. As part of the Paris Agreement, signatory nations are required to submit climate action plans, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The report recommends that as countries prepare to submit their second round of NDCs in 2020, they should take advantage of reduced costs and the COVID-19 economic stimulus measures to provide more aggressive commitments than previously planned.

Employing Data to Mitigate Climate Change

The report states that the pandemic has also brought the value of data in responding to crises to light. Timely and accurate data has allowed countries to allocate healthcare resources when and where needed. In the race to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change, there is scope for more accurate data, including that which distinguishes between anthropogenic and natural greenhouse gases (GHGs). Moreover, it points out that today the world has a vital opportunity to make further investments in satellite sensors that can provide precision data, enabling countries to identify emission hotspots and verify their emission reductions with a higher degree of accuracy.

Therefore, in addition to reducing emissions, we need to begin eliminating the excess greenhouse gases that have accumulated over the last two centuries. One way to remove carbon dioxide is through afforestation – planting trees where none previously existed, or through reforestation – recovering lost trees. The report suggests that we would need to plant more than one billion trees to offset our current emission levels. Recently, several environment-focused companies have effectively captured carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, regardless of location. This approach, referred to as ‘direct air capture’, is still in its early stages, but startups around the world have proven the viability of the technology.  Bill Gates-backed Carbon Engineering, for example, is in the process of setting up its first full-scale commercial plant, set to capture one million tons of carbon dioxide annually, once complete, by 2023.

Looking Ahead

In the future, the report recommends that governments should promote a green recovery from the global crisis through directing economic stimulus packages towards initiatives that simultaneously rescue economies and address climate change. In addition to reducing emissions, it urges countries to focus on adopting carbon removal technologies, and invite the brightest entrepreneurs and innovators to pitch unconventional approaches to removing the buildup of carbon dioxide.

Dubai Future Research, an initiative by Dubai Future Foundation, has issued a series of comprehensive and forward-looking reports and studies that tackle the challenges arising from the emergence of the novel COVID-19 pandemic. Positioning the Dubai Future Foundation as a source of insight on the future, the series aims to  support key sectors in Dubai, the wider UAE and the region to navigate and anticipate the future more efficiently, in light of the current health crisis, through highlighting emerging opportunities and providing recommendations for the short- and long-term period.