Pandemic and climate change: two (probably interconnected) emergencies that require the search for new models of sustainable development

Commentary: The pandemic has had at least one positive side effect, namely the decrease in carbon emissions into the atmosphere. This may be an opportunity for a lasting “energy renaissance” that makes production models more consistent with the environment and, as a result, with public health

Is there a correlation between the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change?

Apparently not. The virus is supposed to weaken with high temperatures and – unlike winter months when people stay indoors more (a situation that favors infections) – in the summer people tend to stay more outdoors or in constantly ventilated rooms and therefore be less exposed to viral aggression.

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that a mild climate should inhibit the virus vitality, but the spread of cases in the southern hemisphere shows that this pathogen is more resistant to heat than “traditional” influenza viruses.

Now, with the so-called “Delta variant”, the number of infections seems to be rising throughout Europe, a sign that the virus maintains its aggressiveness even at high temperatures.

In fact, according to many experts and scholars, the pandemic that has caused a global crisis can be related to climate change insofar as the latter is connected to the increase in pollution rates caused by the disproportionate use of non-renewable energy sources (first and foremost, oil and coal).

Air pollution, in turn, causes damage to the respiratory system, especially in the weakest subjects who account for 90% of Covid-19 victims. The said damage can be considered co-responsible for the lethal consequences of the flu syndrome.

In August 2020, the scholars who participated in the Congress on the relationship between “climate, weather and environmental factors and the Covid-19 pandemic”, organized by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), came to the conclusion that the pandemic “reflects the state of tension between man and nature”.

According to many of the researchers who participated in the WMO Congress, the most severe consequences of the Covid-19 infection occurred in patients exposed more frequently to the air polluted by carbon dioxide.

Although unanimous scientific consensus has not been reached on the possible interrelations between the pandemic and climate change, authoritative studies show that the average rise in global temperatures increases the ability of the virus to spread, also due to the increase in rainfall and the average humidity rate since the latter factors stimulate virus viability and resistance.

According to the “Fifth Assessment Report” of the (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the average increase in temperature and rainfall has altered the distribution and spread of pathogenic vectors. These factors, connected to the increased mobility of the population and to changes in the habitat of some animal species (such as bats) caused by man, can be considered co-responsible for the speed with which the Covid-19 virus has spread in all continents, particularly in areas where there are higher levels of industrialization and air pollution by CO2.

Due to the impact of the pandemic on industrial production and on the global economy, the pollution rate has, in general, decreased, also because the abrupt slowdown imposed on production and consumption has actually contributed to the decrease of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere which, in China alone, in the first four months of 2020 decreased by 10.3%, while worldwide the decrease was 5.8%.

Now, thanks to the success of the vaccination campaign that in Europe is reaching acceptable levels for collective security, many countries, including Italy, are preparing – with a new productive impetus – the recovery of the economy, disrupted by the pandemic effects. As highlighted in the works of the recent G20 in Venice, this recovery shall start from a new commitment to energy production with renewable sources and with the progressive and marked decrease in the use of polluting sources, such as oil and coal.

As seen above, the pandemic has caused at least one positive side-effect, i.e. the decrease in carbon emissions into the atmosphere. This may be the opportunity for a new “energy renaissance”, destined to last over time and to make production models more consistent with the environment and, as a result, with public health.

The protagonists of this paradigm shift in industrial production will be renewable energy sources, including marine energy and hydrogen.

In August last year, as part of the ambitious development program called “European Green Deal”, the European Union launched a real “Hydrogen Strategy” in which it is stressed that “clean” hydrogen (i.e. the one extracted from water through electrolysis) must be an integral part of the ecological transition envisaged and funded by the “Recovery Plan”, with the aim – in the very short term – to produce, by 2024, 6 GW per year of “green” energy from hydrogen electrolysis.

China is also moving concretely in this direction, thanks not only to the commitment made by President Xi Jinping, also at the G20, to drastically reduce carbon emissions by 2030 in compliance with the Paris Agreement of 2012, but also to the work of the very young Minister, Lu Hao, who heads a Department that includes six previous Ministries and is at the forefront in the strategy of ecological conversion of the entire Chinese production system.

This strategy envisages the widest use of energy produced by wave motion and sea currents. It is in this context that Minister Lu Hao has ordered the creation, in Shenzhen, of the “National Ocean Technology Centre” (NOTC), a center for the study and development of advanced technologies for the production of “green” energy from tides – abundant and clean energy that can be widely used for hydrogen production. The latter, in fact, requires large amounts of electricity that, when produced with the use of traditional systems, such as oil or coal, does not contribute to improve environmental conditions.

With the use of marine energy to activate the electrolytic cells necessary to “separate” hydrogen from oxygen, a “virtuous” production cycle can be created by extracting hydrogen from water with energy supplied “at zero kilometer” from water itself.

Electrical currents from the sea can be produced with energy converters; with energy extractors from the tides; with thermal converters that exploit the differences in temperature at various depths, as well as with tools that can exploit even the differences in salinity.

With these technology and equipment huge amounts of energy can be extracted without causing any damage to the environment or to sea flora and fauna and CO2 emissions into the atmosphere will be reduced by billions of tons.

This is not science fiction but a tangible reality: every ocean has a stable potential overabundance of energy that can be extracted from waves, currents and tides – energy at lower costs than those of the other renewables.

Even the Mediterranean is to be considered an excellent potential source of marine energy.

In Ravenna ENI has already put into operation the “Inertial Wave Converter”, a wave energy converter designed to extract 50 Gigawatts from the cyclic motion of waves, currents and tides.

Together with Scandinavia, Italy is the European leader in the research and practical application of these technologies and their use in the production of hydrogen through electrolysis, with a pilot project in the Strait of Messina.

Worldwide, with China in the forefront, there are currently over fifty active projects for research and production of clean energy from sea water, part of which is dedicated to the future production of green hydrogen. In short, these projects are all dedicated to rebuild a relationship between man and nature that, far from dreaming of a “pleasurable degrowth”, i.e. a sustainable negative growth, aims to achieve a development model that is consistent with the needs of production, but also with the inescapable need for “turning green”.

We are coming out of a very severe health and economic crisis caused by a pandemic which – as authoritative scientific research and studies claim – has been made more widespread and lethal by climate change and environmental pollution.

If, as we can foresee, a new pandemic breaks out in a few years, it will be good for the world to be prepared, having made the ecosystem healthier and cleaner in view of hindering the spread of new viruses with a global prevention strategy, also at environmental and climate levels.

Giancarlo Elia Valori