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[Research Reports] COVID-19's Impact on the Environment and Sustainability
The Triple-R (Response, Recovery, Redesign) Proposal

05-24-2021
MORI Hideyuki (Former Executive Director/Special Policy Advisor Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES))
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Research Group on Global Issues #6

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

Basic Approach

Broadly speaking, the COVID-19 crisis has been sparked by a combination of two factors. The first is the threat of zoonoses faced in common by humans and other vertebrate animals, and once again it has become clear that the capture and sale of wild animals can produce crises such as this. The second factor is the overall acceleration in the movement of people and goods across national borders that is characteristic of globalization. The first factor enabled transmission of the COVID-19 virus from animals to humans, while the second caused these infections to spread worldwide to a pandemic level.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a serious issue closely tied to numerous environmental problems. The countries participating in the 11th Petersberg Climate Dialogue held in April 2020 recognized the importance of a "Green Recovery" that fuses rebuilding from the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 with policies addressing climate change. In that vein, Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi held an online ministerial-level meeting in September of that year and launched "Platform for Redesign 2020"2 with the idea of "Building Back Better" in mind.

The "Triple-R" Framework long advocated by IGES is illustrated in Figure 1. "Response" calls for action to deal with an immediate crisis. From an environmental perspective, for example, this could entail urgent countermeasures to deal with the sharp rise in medical waste. "Recovery" focuses primarily on reviving a flagging economy and declining employment. At this stage, "Green Recovery" is an important initiative from an environmental perspective. "Redesign" covers strategies for making a post-coronavirus world better. Pursuing digitalization and decarbonization are key strategies, of course, but boosting resilience to pandemics such as COVID-19 - i.e., "don't let a pandemic happen, don't let it spread if it does happen, and don't let it become serious" - will also be a crucial issue.

Figure 1: Triple-R Framework concept

"Triple R", as conceptually understood, proceeds in chronological order from Response to Recovery to Redesign. However, until the pandemic is brought under control, these three phases in fact overlap at any given time. Because the principal aims of each "R" in "Triple-R" differs, the steps taken during each phase also vary and may not necessarily be mutually compatible. For example, efforts to restore the economy and employment could lead to increased use of coal and other fossil fuels.3

Accordingly, measures with differing aims could be undertaken in line with particular "Triple-R" phases, but it is essential to ensure that these do not contradict efforts to improve the environment and sustainability. It is particularly important that measures be designed to produce synergy between the economy, employment and digitalization on one hand, and environmental and sustainability issues on the other.

"Response": Addressing Urgent Issues

Coping with medical waste

The use of disposable masks, gloves and other medical equipment has expanded on the medical front lines in many countries, which are now facing a surge in medical waste (ADB 2020). Dealing with this issue in developing countries having fragile waste disposal systems is particularly urgent.

To enable developing countries to deal appropriately with these circumstances, IGES joined with UNEP to compile a set of guidelines in September 2020 entitled "Waste Processing during the COVID-19 Pandemic: From Response to Recovery" (IGES/UNEP 2020). It has been pointed out that the systems developing countries have for implementing the international guidelines on medical waste set out by the WHO (UNEP 2020) are fragile, and that emergency response plans need to be prepared to properly address this matter.

Based on the aforementioned report, IGES held an international session on medical waste as part of ISAP in October of that year.4 There it was confirmed that the most practical approach would be to tailor measures for dealing with medical waste to the waste generation levels and processing capabilities of individual countries. It was reported that Indonesia, for instance, formulated and enforced new guidelines when COVID-19 struck and adopted new methods such as cement kilns to carry out disposal.

"Recovery": Pursuing Green Economic Recovery Measures

Promoting green recovery

Countries are currently introducing economic stimulus measures aimed at reopening suspended businesses and replacing lost jobs. However, conventional economic stimulus measures, while they may achieve a short-term economic turnaround, will not lead to a better recovery. Economic stimulus measures need to be designed to help resolve common global issues such as decarbonization as well as contribute to building a world resilient against possible similar pandemics in future.

The economic stimulus measures being implemented worldwide total around US$12 to 15 trillion, of which only about 3-5% is being applied to measures related to the environment or sustainability (C 40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, 2020). According to the "Energy Policy Tracker" database (IISD, 2020) compiled at the initiative of IISD and IGES, US$233.7 billion (56% of the total) is being applied to activities promoting the production/consumption of fossil fuels, while investment in measures to encourage the production, consumption, etc., of renewable energies only amounts to US$149.7 billion (35% of the total) (as of November 18, 2020).

These percentages differ greatly by country, though, and Germany, France and China have allocated most of their funds to promoting renewable energies and similar endeavors, reflecting the fundamental policies of the EU and China. The EU announced a "European Green Deal" in December 2019 and then in July 2020 created the €750 billion Next Generation EU, formulated the EU's Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) 2021-2027) (€1.0743 trillion) and announced that 30% of the total of about €1.8 trillion would go to combatting climate change (EC November 2020). For its part, China announced at the UN General Assembly in September of that year that it would achieve carbon-neutral status by 2060.

Japan and South Korea followed up in October by announcing that they would become carbon-neutral by 2050. These countries, too, are expected to give earnest consideration to attaining a green recovery primarily focused on promoting renewable energies.

Sustainable workstyles and lifestyles

Conducting university classes and many international conferences online has now become standard practice. Teleworking has also become widespread and going to work/school or engaging in other activities remotely has become normal. It can be expected that emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) are to be reduced with these major changes in workstyles and lifestyles. In this connection, IGES teamed up with other research institutions from Europe to prepare and publish "The 1.5℃ Lifestyle: Options to Achieve Decarbonized Living" (IGES, Aalto University 2019) in February 2019.

A recently published paper (Zhu Liu et al, 2020) reported that GHG declined worldwide by about 8.8% on average during the period January to June 2020 following the outbreak of COVID-19, with the biggest cause having been cuts in the ground and air transport sectors reflecting the significant changes made in workstyles and lifestyles. It is important that these changes, which have proven effective regarding work-life balance as well, be sustained and continued as much as possible even after the emergency has passed.

"Redesign": Building Resilient and Sustainable Societies

Addressing the fundamental cause of zoonotic infections

The direct cause of COVID-19 is thought to have been illicit trading in wild animals in markets in Wuhan, China, and China issued an ordinance forbidding trading in specified animals for food as an emergency measure to address the issue (White A 2020). The question is whether such measures can be maintained and extended even after the COVID-19 crisis is over.

The general cause of zoonotic infections is rampant host-parasite coevolution facilitated by humans (Goka K et al, 2020) but sufficient knowledge is not yet available about what specific factors were involved in what way and to what degree (Rubio et al, 2016; Rohr et al, 2020). Nevertheless, the executive summary from the IPBES workshop on COVID-19 and pandemics held in July 2020 (IPBES 2020) noted that an approach integrally protective of the health of animals and the ecosystem as well as of humans (One Health) is imperative and pointed out the importance of going beyond the current symptomatic approach at some point in the future to establish a comprehensive international agreement on guarding against pandemics.

Coping with the increasingly serious health impacts of air pollution

Air pollution is a serious problem currently responsible for around seven million premature deaths each year (WHO 2016). A comprehensive paper published in October 2020 on the degree to which air pollution had contributed to COVID-19 mortality rates in areas such as Europe, North America and East Asia made clear that, on average, air pollution was a factor in 15% of deaths attributed to COVID-19 (Pozzer A 2020). India and many other developing countries are plagued with very serious air pollution, creating the possibility that enormous numbers of people could contract COVID-19 and die due to compound effects (Marlow et al, 2020).

IGES made substantive contribution to "Air Pollution in Asia and the Pacific: Science-based Solutions" (UNEP/ROAP 2019) prepared by the UNEP and others in January 2019. This report advocates 25 specific measures that can be implemented by developing countries, including the pursuit of co-benefits in combating air pollution and climate change and the implementation of PM2.5 countermeasures. It asserts that encouraging transport means other than automobiles in addition to telework is critical in urban areas and suggests that some regions may need new means of public transport and emissions regulations.

This is English translation of Japanese paper originally published on January 26, 2021.

References

  1. ADB. "Managing Infectious Medical Waste during the COVID-19 Pandemic." Asian Development Bank. April 2020. https://www.adb.org/publications/managing-medical-waste-covid19.

  2. C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Commentary and Opinion, by ‎the Mayors of Los Angeles, Milan, Freetown, Hong Kong, Lisbon, Rotterdam, Medellín, Montréal, New Orleans, Seattle, and Seoul, "Governments' use of COVID stimulus funding is the real test of climate commitments", October‎ ‎2020.

  3. EC, 11 November 2020. https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/about_the_european_commission/eu_budget/mff_factsheet_agreement_en_web_20.11.pdf

  4. Goka, Kouichi and Hiroko Kono. パンデミックの背景にある根本的問題 人獣共通感染症との闘いに終わりはない (特集 コロナ直撃 世界激変) -- (感染症と闘う) [The Root Issue Behind the Pandemic: The Fight Against Zoonoses Will Not End]. Chuokoron, May 2020.

  5. IGES, Aalto University, and D-mat ltd. "1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Targets and Options for Reducing Lifestyle Carbon Footprints." IGES, 2019. https://www.iges.or.jp/en/pub/15-degrees-lifestyles-2019/en. 

  6. IGES/UNEP, "Waste Management during the COVID-19 Pandemic: From Response to Recovery", September 2020, Tsukiji Makoto, Premakumara Jagath Dickella Gamaralalage et al.

  7. https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/report/waste-management-during-covid-19...

  8. IISD (International Institute for Sustainable Development), IGES, Oil Change International (OCI), ODI, Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), & Columbia University SIPA Center on Global Energy Policy. (2020). Energy policy tracker. Accessed DATE 2020. https://www.energypolicytracker.org/ 

  9. IPBES 2020: IPBES Workshop on Biodiversity and Pandemics, Executive Summary, 2020, www.ipbes.net

  10. Marlow, Ian, and Hannah Dormido. "Two-Thirds of the World's Most Polluted Cities Are in India." Bloomberg Green. 25 February 2020. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-02-25/china-clears-air-to-leave-indian-cities-unrivaled-smog-centers.

  11. Pozzer, A. et al, "Regional and global concentration of air pollution to risk of death from COVID-19", Cardiovascular Research. cvaa 288, http://doi.org/10.1093/cvr/cvaa288, 26 October 2020.

  12. Rohr, J. R., Civitello, D. J., Halliday, F. W., Hudson, P. J., Lafferty, K. D., Wood, C. L., & Mordecai, E. A. (2020). Towards common ground in the biodiversity-disease debate. Nature Ecology and Evolution, 4(1), 24-33. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-1060-6

  13. Rubio, A. V., Fredes, F., & Simonetti, J. A. (2016). Links Between Land-Sharing, Biodiversity, and Zoonotic Diseases: A Knowledge Gap. EcoHealth, 13(4), 607-608. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10393-016-1171-3

  14. UNEP 2020. "Waste Management an Essential Public Service in the Fight to Beat COVID-19." https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/press-release/waste-management-essential-public-service-fight-beat-covid-19.

  15. UNEP/ROAP 2019: "Air Pollution in Asia and the Pacific: Science-based Solutions." UNEP, January 2019. https://www.ccacoalition.org/en/file/6836/download?token=3ur8Em5T

  16. White A, "China's wildlife trade policy: What has changed since COVID-19?" CovidCrimeWatch, Posted on 27 May 2020.

  17. WHO. "World Health Statistics 2016: Monitoring Health for the SDGs." World Health Organization, 2016. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/206498/1/9789241565264_eng.pdf?ua=1.

  18. Zhu Liu et.al, "Near-real-time monitoring of global CO2 emissions reveals the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic", Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 5172 (2020). 




1 Prepared by summarizing the IGES Position Paper "The Impact of Novel Coronavirus Infections on the Environment and Sustainability", Mori H et al, 14 May 2020, and Version 2 of this same position paper, Mori H et al, 15 December 2020

2 A platform led by the Ministry of the Environment, supported by the UN and managed by IGES

3 Air pollution, which improved substantially in many areas during lockdowns, etc., returned to its previous levels as recovery measures were implemented and economies rebounded.

4 One of the sessions of International Forum for Sustainable Asia and Pacific (ISAP) 2020 held by IGES on November 11, 2020: "Waste Management in Response to COVID-19: Exploring Ways of Response and Recovery"