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On Earth Day, remember that Covid-19 is also an environmental problem

By Joselito B. Cruz

Matthias Gelber (www.greenmanspeaks.com) has been called “the greenest person on the planet.” 

Born and raised in a small German village surrounded with forests, he unsurprisingly took on a strong affinity with nature. He has long been an advocate of sustainable living. 

From Europe, where he obtained a Master’s degree in Environmental Science at Brunel University in the UK, his advocacy led him to Southeast Asia, where many developing countries are among those at highest risk of climate change impact. He co-founded a firm that specializes in high-performance yet low-carbon footprint construction materials and has published his first book, The Greenman’s Guide to Green Living and Working.

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GO GREEN Matthias Gelber encourages everyone to go for sustainable living and to take climate change issues seriously

Matthias now calls the Philippines home, and from his suburban residence in Laguna together with his family, he is experiencing the “new normal” under the community quarantine, along with millions of Filipinos across the nation.

As a global environmental expert and proponent of sustainable living, he shares his thoughts in time for this year’s 50th commemoration of Earth Day on how the coronavirus is not only a public health issue but an environmental one as well.

As the world has resorted to lockdowns, people have begun witnessing tangible changes in the environment. What do you consider the most remarkable?

A significant improvement in air quality and the reduction of pollution are among the most amazing changes. People can see it with their own eyes, they can measure it. For example, in India where they haven’t seen the Himalayas in the last 20 years, suddenly they can see it, because the smog that’s been clouding the view has disappeared. In Metro Manila, we have seen the remarkable social media photos of condo dwellers finally getting a view of the surrounding Sierra Madre mountain ranges.

One other significant aspect is the emergence of wildlife and biodiversity in some areas where people have stepped back. In national parks in the US, the bears are roaming around freely. 

To which human activities can these changes be attributed? 

Power consumption, transportation, and manufacturing in factories are all intrinsically linked to air pollution. If we look at Metro Manila, especially those outdated jeepneys and lorry trucks with huge plumes of emissions coming out in addition to all the other emissions that are invisible—that is a very significant realization for people.

I read that Central Luzon has seen a reduction in power consumption by 30 percent—whether that led to any downscaling or shut off of powerplants, I’m not sure, but it will definitely positively contribute as well to a reduction in emissions.

In the US East Coast, they measured nitrous oxide levels at 30 percent lower, so far the lowest in recent historical tracking.

These changes clearly send a message to people that there is a link between what we are doing in our day-to-day and the environment, as well as our health.

Boracay sunset

BORACAY SUNSET

How is the pandemic changing the whole discourse on climate change? 

By us now being disconnected with nature a little bit due to the lockdown, with hope we can re-learn how precious our time in nature is. How precious the presence of nature is itself.

I think we need to call it physical distancing because socially, we still want to be connected—that’s basic humanity. We can be more connected now, because we appreciate the value of it. And linking it to the planet—how important social, environmental, and emotional connection with the planet is. We now appreciate much more what the planet gives us.

We need to mitigate and adapt. Climate change is a very slow process, whereas the virus has been a very fast one. A lot of people are saying about climate change, “Don’t worry about mitigation, just get ready for adaptation and we have technology to help with that.” But now, we are facing a crisis where technology is far slower than the gigantic impact. When the impact hits you, it’s too late. 

I hope that this coronavirus crisis will teach us that lesson about climate change. It’s going to be cheaper and much more beneficial for humanity to take mitigated action than to wait for adaptation.

What concrete steps should we take after the pandemic?

We need to create a “green” economy. We need to shift from an extractive economy, which sees the planet just as a resource that humans exploit as long as it makes money, to one where we are putting people, planet, and profit into balance.

Creating a regenerative economy means going for sustainability, in simple things such as power and electricity—going for reliable, long-term renewable sources such as geothermal as opposed to coal. Not many people know but the Philippines is the third largest geothermal energy producer in the world.

There are a lot of vehicles on the road in the Philippines that don’t comply with existing legislations, which are massively impacting people’s health. E-vehicles is one solution, but it is only really “green” holistically when we draw all our power from renewable energy. 

What is your message for Filipinos about public health and climate change?

We need to take these problems seriously on all fronts—from a personal level to a city or state level, and on organizational and governmental levels. Let’s all do our part where we have control and influence. Everybody can ask themselves a question, “What is my carbon footprint? Can I make my life climate neutral?”

We need to shift from owning things to renting, so we pay for services rather than buy everything.

That way, we can decarbonize the economy and we can shift away from everybody owning two or more cars. 

Corporations can start buying renewable power and implementing a pathway to climate neutrality by innovating new products or services that are low- or zero-carbon.

One of the major trends is environment and social governance (ESG) investing, with fund managers increasingly shifting away from old-style polluting economies like oil and gas. ESG fund criteria are monitoring how well companies do considering climate change as one key issue that needs to be managed. 

We need to look at the bigger picture and shift to a more holistic and balanced economy. Help ourselves with self-sufficiency, help the planet toward a regenerative economy. 


Source: Manila Bulletin (https://lifestyle.mb.com.ph/2020/04/22/on-earth-day-remember-that-covid-19-is-also-an-environmental-problem/)

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