A dramatic reduction in air pollution might seem like a silver lining in global efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, but the world could see a "huge backlash" in emissions once the crisis comes to an end.
That is the warning delivered by Dr. Orr Karassin, a senior lecturer in public policy and environmental regulation at the Open University of Israel, based on evidence from the 2008 global financial crisis.
"Everything that we are currently seeing, the improvements in environmental conditions, are possibly - and regretfully - very temporary," Karassin told The Jerusalem Post. "The great concern has to be that, with the deterioration in economic conditions, we might actually see a huge backlash after the current crisis is over."
Karassin points toward the 5% increase in global carbon emissions following last decade's downturn, compared to before the financial crash. As governments sought to boost their economies, concessions were increasingly granted to industries previously being phased out, including coal and oil shale.
"It is of great concern that we will not actually be able to sustain any environmental improvements that we make," she said. "There is a need to talk more about how we can shift our economic patterns to ensure that regrowth, and we will need a lot of economic regrowth, is conducted in a more sustainable way than in the past."
Earlier this month, significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) were detected over China by NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) pollution monitoring satellites, as the country sought to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak.
One NASA air quality researcher said she had never "seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event," as motor vehicles and industrial facilities ground to a halt.
On Wednesday, the European Environment Agency also confirmed "large decreases in air pollutant concentrations," including nitrogen dioxide, especially in cities under lockdown. In Milan, for example, average concentrations of nitrogen dioxide during the past four weeks were at least 24% lower than during four weeks earlier this year. Major drops were also identified in Rome, Barcelona, Madrid and Lisbon.
Closer to home, the Environmental Protection Ministry reported a 30% reduction in nitrogen dioxide in mid-March compared to average emissions since January.
Confirming fears of increased pollution once the crisis subsides, Karassin said Israel's Tamir Reycling Corporation - responsible for treating packaging waste - has already been granted some regulatory concessions.
A further environmental concern voiced by Karassin relates to the possible reduction of renewable energy subsidies on offer, as governments reassess their fiscal policies after the crisis. Companies reliant on such subsidies to advance environmental technologies are likely to be wary of whether that support will now continue.
"The question is now whether previous prohibitions will remain in place and environmental technologies will be able to broaden their market share," said Karassin. "As opposed to a situation that could negatively affect those technologies, because of increased risk, declining government support and a decrease in demand from consumers or suppliers."