• An open letter to G20 leaders calls for a ‘#HealthyRecovery’ from the coronavirus pandemic.
  • It’s signed by 350 organisations and over 4,500 individual health professionals from 90 different countries.
  • The signatories cite World Health Organization (WHO) data that air pollution is leading to millions of premature deaths.
  • Pollution has fallen dramatically during pandemic lockdowns and there are now attempts to convince leaders to lock-in environmental gains.

“Seven million premature deaths every year.”

That’s the consequence of business-as-usual economics, according to organizations representing over 40 million individual health professionals from around the world. Air pollution, they add, may have made the coronavirus outbreak worse.

In a letter to leaders of the G20 economies, the signatories urge a cleaner, greener and more equal society to be constructed in the shadow of the pandemic, to reap a potential dividend of almost $100 trillion.

The call comes as a study shows that dramatic CO2 falls in recent months could have little impact on climate change, if countries return rapidly to pre-lockdown ways.

The evidence

“We have witnessed death, disease and mental distress at levels not seen for decades,” the letter says. “These effects could have been partially mitigated, or possibly even prevented by adequate investments in pandemic preparedness, public health and environmental stewardship.”

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The letter cites World Health Organization (WHO) evidence that air pollution is killing millions – more than 90% from low- and middle-income countries – through a mix of outside emissions like dirty industry and domestic causes like poorly-ventilated cooking.

Deaths from air pollution worldwide.
The WHO says air pollution causes 7 million deaths each year.
Image: Statista

While the links between pollution and COVID-19 are not yet fully understood, some researchers have found connections. A Harvard study has found that a small increase in long-term exposure to fine particulate matter leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate. And a paper published by the Italian Society of Environmental Medicine identifies a possible link to atmospheric pollution.

The open letter also references studies showing how environmental degradation could increase the risk of life-threatening diseases.

Change in global daily fossil fuel CO2 emissions by sector.
CO2 emissions fell dramatically between March and April this year.
Image: Le Quéré/UEA/Nature Climate Change

An opportunity

At the same time, the pandemic lockdown has given a glimpse of a cleaner future.

Satellite images taken during lockdown showed how air pollution fell dramatically as nations put their economies on ice. This led to an estimated 17% fall in global CO2 emissions in early April at the height of restrictions, say climate researchers from the University of East Anglia in the UK.

However, the study also found that if pre-pandemic economic conditions resume by mid-June, the overall CO2 fall this year could be as low at 4% – less than the annual reduction needed to prevent significant climate warming.

This is the time to act, according to the open letter: by shifting subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energy, for example. This, the authors say, could yield a benefit for global GDP of $98 trillion over the next 30 years and help improve incomes for the poorest.

Visions of the future

There are signs that countries could be re-orientating their economies towards green growth. A number of cities – including New York and Barcelona – are dramatically increasing the pedestrianisation of streets to ease congestion and promote social distancing.

The question is whether such policies will become entrenched and lead to a step change in ‘green growth’.

The signatories of the letter have a suggestion that could help embed policy shifts at the highest levels: make chief medical officers and chief scientific advisors directly involved in the production of all economic stimulus packages.

And leaders would only be able to proceed if their newly empowered advisors “give their stamp of approval”.

“We must learn from these mistakes,” the signatories say, “and come back stronger, healthier and more resilient.” That is the challenge.