Reopening the economy: Opportunities and threats for the environment

It is worth to take stock and to reflect inwardly about how our behavioural shift during the lockdown could continue to abate air, water and land pollution post-lockdown. – File photo

NOW more than ever, COVID-19 flags a bleak outlook for the economy and social livelihood. This is among the headlines we frown upon day in, day out. On the flip side, what seems to be a global crisis economically and socially, resembles layers of silver linings for the environment – perhaps the sole beneficiary of the ruthless pandemic so far.  A recent study concludes that when half of the world population is under some form of lockdown due to COVID-19, mobility is drastically reduced up to 90% and as a result, environmental pollution is sharply scaled down up to 30%. Put succinctly, the hiatus brought by the pandemic forcibly put a slowdown to the pollution we caused on air, water and land. However, when things bounce back to normal, nobody could guarantee whether the environmental improvement inadvertently achieved would persist in the long run.

Arguably, the environment rides the momentum of the lockdown side effects and basks in glory, potentially just until the lockdown is fully lifted. The hard truth is: the longer the lockdown, the better the environment thrives but the steeper the economy contracts. Having both feet on the ground, a lockdown  in any country cannot last forever without affecting us economically and socially. With COVID-19 has not been fully contained, the global economy is now paralyzing and is calling for an urgent reviving. If the worst case scenario prevails, the pandemic may continue to shape our livelihood much longer than what we had hoped for. Looking back through history, it is worth mentioning that scientists have been trying to find a vaccine for the common cold without success since the 1950s.

Today, COVID-19 fatality rate is slowly subsiding in Malaysia. Based on a calculated risk assessment, the government is taking a baby step to relax the movement restriction and jumpstart the economy. With Conditional Movement Control Order being implemented, it is feared that reopening the economy could run the risk of industries doubling up its operation manifolds in making up for what has been lost. Unlike countries that  have moved from a manufacturing or industrial economy to a service economy, Malaysia is still very much dependent on the activities as well as foreign direct investment in the manufacturing sector. In other sectors, people still need to go out and work to make ends meet. While economic activity and subsequent pollution is expected to return, it is worth to take stock and to reflect inwardly about how our behavioural shift during the lockdown could continue to abate air, water and land pollution post-lockdown.

Air – Air pollution is mainly caused by the emission from the combustion of fossil fuels caused by energy use and production. Air polluters include smog, soot, hazardous pollutants and greenhouse gases. During the lockdown, domestic travel was discouraged, international travel was banned and factories operation was abruptly shut causing less fossil fuel being burned. Air travel is reported to drop 96% globally, lowest in 75 years. This translates to a dramatically reduced carbon emissions, clear blue skies and lower ecological footprints for our groceries and consumables. Some of the behavioural shifts that contribute to the cleaner air worth holding on to post-lockdown are the transitioning from physical office to telecommuting, prioritising office mobility and flexibility, reassessing long haul travel necessity, making better choice about daily transportation and buying locals with lower ecological footprints.

Water – Water pollution occurs when harmful substances such as toxic chemicals or microorganisms contaminate a water body such as stream, river, lake, ocean and aquifer. Contaminant originates from various sources like agricultural, recreational, sewage, wastewater, oil, single used plastics, consumables as well as radioactive. Industry shutdown and less recreational activities leads to less pollutants in waterways as well as less activities that cut through the marine habitats. During the lockdown, 29 water monitoring stations in Malaysia showed an improved river water quality index. Being more vigilant about our waste and opting for a safer disposal may help to continuously protect our water.

Land – Land pollution refers to the degradation of the land surfaces mainly due to the misuse of land resources and human activities such as the disposal of agricultural, domestic, industrial and commercial waste. The lockdown caused a  decreased in foot traffic and waste generation especially in the agricultural, industrial and commercial sectors. This eventually eased the burden of the landfill. Solid waste entering Malaysian landfills are reported to  dropped significantly around 10% to 30% during the lockdown period. Further, the fear of catching the pandemic had also indirectly caused many to develop an instant habit of refusing plastic bags and bringing their own. Although there is no anecdotal evidence of an increased recycling awareness, we could always start small in generating less waste post-lockdown.

The grim reality of COVID-19 brings with it an important lesson about how pollution is a reversible phenomenon. In returning to what is supposed to be a changed world of a new normal, we need to thoroughly assess what part of the old normal worth going back to. Whether the environment improvement achieved during the lockdown period is doomed to be a short lived victory or a major turning point for a more sustainable future, depends hugely on the options we make. While opportunity cost in balancing economic, social and environmental consideration remains a challenge, our behavioral shift as an individual could help to achieve the future that we want. The pandemic anomalies forced us to make greener options and kept us away from the pollution we have been previously harmed by, why don’t we leave the situation as it is and continue to pollute less?

* Dr Zurina Moktar is an expert in business model innovation, technology commercialization and biodiversity conservation. She holds a PhD in Engineering from the University of Cambridge, UK.

** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.