The rigorous precautionary measures imposed by China to counter the pandemic — including locking down cities, shutting down factories, practicing work from home, and suspending all kinds of transportation — have proved highly effective not only in curbing the spread of the virus but also in slashing air pollution. In the four weeks leading up to March 1, China’s release of carbon dioxide fell 200 million metric tons, or 25 percent compared to the same period in 2019, according to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air. Some scientists predict the reduction in air pollution in China may have saved somewhere between 5,000 and 75,000 people from premature death. The link between air pollution and premature death has been well-proven for decades. The logic also applies to the rest of the world, where no-less stringent measures are observed. So the world is saving lives that could have been lost from air pollution, while losing lives succumbing to the coronavirus.
Accompanying the reeling global economy is the declining fossil fuel market, which means greenhouse gas emissions are diminishing — an unexpected boon of the coronavirus crisis.
As the scourge eases, so do the precautionary protocols across the world; we smell the air pollution lurking about, again. There’s a fear that climate change will accelerate post-pandemic, as every country in the world will aggressively reboot their economies — at the cost of air pollution. The deterioration of air quality as a result will likely eclipse the greenhouse gas emissions reduced during the outbreak.
As an ordinary person living on Earth, every individual can do something to stop the globe from warming, slowing the glaciers from melting, or even simply making the sky bluer and clearer. That may sound daunting. However, we are not helpless in salvaging the sickening Earth. Consciously choosing the means of transport will help minimize our carbon footprint.
The aviation industry is one of the hardest hit because of the world’s massive lockdowns. I figure that many people have started harboring a fear of taking a plane because of the potential risk of spreading pathogens within the enclosed cabin. For long-haul flights in particular, the sealed cabin becomes a breeding ground for contagion. As we’ve heard of countless cases of people being infected onboard or in the airport, our inner angst over traveling by air has simmered. Science-backed research suggests that it takes an average of 66 days before a behavior becomes a habit, and we have recoiled from flights for more than two months. Therefore, it’s a legitimate guess that many people will shun flights in the future. It’s tremendously good news for the environment, given that flights contribute to greenhouse gas emissions significantly from burning fuel. A domestic flight can emit 133 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger per kilometer traveled, compared with 41 grams by domestic rail, 43 grams for four-passenger car, and 27 grams by bus. For long-haul flights, carbon emissions per passenger per kilometer of travel are three times higher for business class and four times higher for first class.
I encourage every one of us to scrutinize our traveling habits. We may want to ask ourselves: How many times a year do you travel by air? How often do you take a long-haul flight? Do you indulge yourself with a business-class seat or even first-class service? Business-class and first-class seats generate considerably more emissions per passenger than economy class as more-spacious seats accommodate fewer passengers. Is taking flight the only means of transport to the destination, or is there an alternative to get you there but by taking a longer commute?
My firsthand experience during my trip abroad is a testimony to the beauty of taking trains, express railways and buses. On the train from Vienna to Salzburg, Austria, I gazed out the window, spoiled by the breathtaking green landscape, gazing at cows and sheep, exotically styled cottages, and villagers tending to their plants on their patios showered in sunshine. On a night train from Zurich back to Vienna, I enjoyed the people-watching, the freedom of ambling in the carriage, and chatting with local passengers. These are a luxury of taking trains that flights cannot promise.
If everyone does his or her meager bit, whether by swapping necessary flight travels for trains, or by cutting meat out of meals sporadically, these minor bits combined could make a real difference to the environment.
The author is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
HONG KONG NEWS