#02 2020

Alas! Or Hurray?

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON

COVID-19 and the lockdown many countries are currently experiencing call to mind the incredible irony of The Song of the Witches, penned by William Shakespeare in Macbeth.

We can certainly read much more into Shakespeare’s poem than what I care to entertain here. Suffice it to say that the Coronavirus may have “jumped” from an animal to a person and is currently causing havoc or “double toil and trouble” for humanity around the world.

Despite the doom and gloom, SAEON is proud to have made a unique and significant contribution to South Africa’s management of the COVID-19 state of disaster. Claire Davis-Reddy and her team consisting of Amelia Hilgart, Hayden Wilson, Galaletsang Keebine and Caroline Mfopa from SAEON’s uLwazi Node, speedily responded to the national disaster announcement by mapping no fewer than 52 COVID-19 preparedness indicators and turning those into an online resource that serves to provide data, tools, visualisations and analytics for planning purposes. Access SAEON’s COVID-19 decision-support tool.

Depending on the availability of national data on the health system, demographics and food security, this type of decision-support tool may have predictive capacity for managing the pandemic in other African countries as well by prioritising districts where the convergence of food insecurity, malaria, comorbidities, population movements, poor healthcare services and hygiene will create a high risk of COVID-19 impacts.

Should we expect sustainable environmental outcomes from the global pandemic?

The most notable immediate effect of the pandemic is that global confinement measures have caused a massive reduction in the demand for energy, which the International Energy Agency (IEA) describes as the “biggest shock to the global energy system in more than seven decades”. The BBC reported that the demand for oil has all but dried up and oil firms have to rent tankers to store surplus supplies; tankers that will stay anchored for a long time.

The IEA estimates an 18% average decline in energy demand in countries in partial lockdown and a 25% average decline for those in full lockdown. The demand for electricity, oil, coal, gas and nuclear will stay below average throughout 2020 to result in an 8% decline in global CO2 emissions.

Ceteris paribus and we are looking at a significant global reduction in anthropogenic CO2 emissions for some time to come, and at simultaneous changes in pollution and consumption patterns. All are pertinent beneficial outcomes for the stretched life-support ecosystems of Planet Earth.

It would therefore be tempting to say ‘hurray’ – just like Shakespeare’s witches’ broth, COVID-19 can be a charm with protective and beneficial powers. But to say that would be brazen given the pandemic’s unbearable cost in human lives and suffering. Yet, the smog that faded from the world’s mega-cities is a clear signal of environmental conditions improving.

The lockdown pause in their hectic schedules afforded people the time to reflect on the rights and wrongs of socio-economic systems and many agree that structural changes are required. Here’s the rub, we need political will to identify and implement those changes. The current gains towards sustainable development are bound to be short-lived as countries have already embarked on new economic recovery programmes, and in time, the rebound of the economy will likely surpass previous levels.

Sustainable development beyond COVID-19

However difficult it is to take a long-term view beyond COVID-19, governments should immediately promote renewable energy and electric vehicles while steering clear of providing relief to carbon-intensive industries. Now is the opportunity to transform the energy sector to be cleaner and more resilient.

In South Africa, energy giants Eskom and Sasol must be coerced, if necessary, to adopt new business models based on renewables and to create a more inclusive energy sector. This move to sustainable production will be of great benefit to their businesses; indeed the World Economic Forum recently observed: “for the first time in history, some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies are seeing their wind and solar assets outperform their oil assets, and their investors are taking note”.

We are facing both an economic and a climate crisis that are connected via the energy sector. Both will benefit from a move towards clean energy.

We are also experiencing an unprecedented health crisis. As a charming bonus, contrary to banning tobacco sales, clean energy benefits all people’s immune systems and thus also human health and healthcare systems at large; we need healthy humans to build sustainable economies and, incidentally, we need robust healthcare systems to help overcome pandemics obstructing our way.

That much we are learning from COVID-19.

The Song of the Witches

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

“We are facing both an economic and a climate crisis that are connected via the energy sector. Both will benefit from a move towards clean energy.” – Johan Pauw