UAE's busiest city, Dubai, engulfed in smog. Source: Eco MENA

Currently, the world is struggling to tackle two major crises at the same time: The COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. Although responses differ between countries, the general global response for the pandemic has been quick and astute, especially in the Middle East. Borders are closed, public transport as well as domestic and international flights are suspended, education has transformed into e-learning, and both private and public sectors are implementing remote working. Yet, the response to the climate crisis has been nothing but another crisis. 

Although scientists have been warning us about climate change since the 19th century with an eponymous movement surfacing over two decades ago, there are no rapid actions being taken by global leaders to tackle and address the climate crisis, not to the same extent as those taken towards COVID-19 anyway. 

Since the start of the spread of COVID-19 and even before it was recognized as a global pandemic, it was apparent that this could impact the climate crisis due to the decline in air traffic in certain parts of the world. With the immediate assumption that this is good for the environment, many questions arose: Is it enough? Is this the right way? What happens to funds that were put in place to tackle the climate crisis amid budget cuts? and many more. 

While some questions remain unanswered, here's what experts and scientists are telling us. Let's start with some statistics. Prior to the pandemic, there was an expectation of at least 1-percent increase in global emissions in 2020. However, since the spread of the novel coronavirus, an analysis by Carbon Brief states that the pandemic is set to cause the largest annual fall in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which is a drop of 5.5 percent. 

The analysis does not include the MENA region but rather focuses on the entire output of China and the U.S., the EU carbon market, India's power sector, and the global oil sector. It goes further into highlighting that this dramatic drop, which no economic crisis had previously caused, is not enough. Global emissions need to fall by around 7.6 percent every year this decade in order to make a change to global warming. In addition, scientists have been pinpointing the impact of air travel as one of the biggest challenges for the climate. 

In the last five years, aviation specifically caused an increase of 26 percent of greenhouse (GHG) emission. When looking at the harm it causes, a press release by WHO states that nine out of 10 people breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants, while estimating that 7 million people die every year because of these pollutants. 

Although the studies around COVID-19 are new and many did not undergo peer review yet, one conducted by the School of Public Health at Harvard University mentions the interlink between COVID-19 and air pollution when it comes to the severity of the virus. The study reports a 15-percent increase in COVID-19 death rate when it comes to those exposed to long-term air pollution. 

Currently, nationwide lockdowns in countries like India and China have led to a drastic decrease in nitrogen dioxide. India, for example, reported a 71-percent fall in NO2. Despite the lack of precise data when it comes to the Middle East specifically, recent data from UAE's Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre shows the decrease in NO2 emissions around the GCC between November 2019 and March 2020. 

Decrease in nitrogen dioxide emission between November 2019 and March 2020 around the GCC. Credit: MBRSC

With excitement spreading over social media as pictures of Bahrain's skyline being visible from Saudi Arabia's Al-Khobar Corniche circulate, it is important to remember that these pictures are a solid proof that climate change is caused by unnatural processes. While these pictures of clearer skies between the two countries are great to see, we must continue to undo what's been done. 

A year ago, many news outlets were reporting on the impact of climate change on the MENA region including the floods in Jeddah, rising sea levels in the Mediterranean, shrinking of the Dead Sea, and more. Today, almost every other MENA news article is about COVID-19, including updates, statistics, and restrictions, with barely any mention of the current state of climate change. 

The threats of the climate crisis affect the region to a great extent. For one, the Egyptian city of Alexandria and Iraqi city of Basra are among the cities in the Arab world that are facing high threats of inundation. Still, data remains almost non-existent when it comes to the region and the precise impact of climate change and COVID-19 on these cities and others. Effective and strict long-lasting solutions remain undetermined and inferior. 

Over the last couple of months, air traffic has dramatically decreased and pollution levels are plummeting as many countries are on lockdown and have closed their borders. One of the industries most economically impacted by the pandemic is the travel and tourism industry. As mentioned above, the environmental impact of aviation on the climate is considered one of the biggest contributors to GHG emissions. While some airlines have environmental policies and initiatives already set, such as Emirates and Etihad, many are already asking for governmental loans and funds as well as going through massive budget cuts that could eliminate these crucial policies and initiatives. 

Regionally, most, if not all, current aviation news revolves around the economic recession hitting airlines. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) in the UAE has called for urgent government actions to preserve air-carriers with no mention of how to maintain the drop in CO2 emissions over the past couple of months or other environmental considerations. Globally, European airlines are already receiving bailouts and loans without any environmental conditions attached. All these talks of loans make it perspicuous that airlines plan to go back to business as usual once the pandemic is over.  

Bahrain can now be seen while standing along Saudi Arabia's Al Khobar corniche. Source: Twitter/rezq_54

What does all of this mean? It tells us two things. First, this contradicting behavior between the responses for COVID-19 and the climate crisis shows the world that fast and synchronized global action is attainable in the face of emergency. Second, while some are talking about the "positive" climate impact caused by the response to COVID-19, others are questioning the feasibility of a short-term solution to a long-term problem. 

Short-term solutions can almost never be an answer for long-term issues. And yes, we must not forget that these changes are a result of many livelihoods being cut and many lives being lost. These changes are a result of a global traumatic experience of grief, loss, and uncertainty. The trauma and the lost lives cannot be the way to tackle the climate crisis. 

In short, the current (and temporary) reduction in emissions and atmospheric pollution will not have a lasting impact on the environment. Simply, it cannot create long-term solutions unless these measures continue and actions are taken accordingly once the pandemic is over. 

In order for these changes to make an impact, governments and global leaders must put in place certain measures and procedures so that their support could lead to a continuous drop in air pollution. If not, then the Earth will be enveloped in grey and brownish smog faster than before. #ClimateActionNow 

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