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The Emissions Impact of Coronavirus Lockdowns, As Shown by Satellites

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NO2 Emissions China Italy

The Emissions Impact of Coronavirus Lockdowns

There’s a high chance you’re reading this while practicing social distancing, or while your corner of the world is under some type of advised or enforced lockdown.

While these are necessary measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, such economic interruption is unprecedented in many ways—resulting in some surprising side effects.

The Evidence is in NO₂ Emissions

Nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) emissions, a major air pollutant, are closely linked to factory output and vehicles operating on the road.

As both industry and transport come to a halt during this pandemic, NO₂ emissions can be a good indicator of global economic activity—and the changes are visible from space.

These images from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), as well as satellite footage from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), show a drastic decline in NO₂ emissions over recent months, particularly across Italy and China.

NO₂ Emissions Across Italy

In Italy, the number of active COVID-19 cases has surpassed China (including the death toll). Amid emergency actions to lock down the entire nation, everything from schools and shops, to restaurants and even some churches, are closed.

Italy is also an industrial hub, with the sector accounting for nearly 24% of GDP. With many Italians urged to work from home if possible, visible economic activity has dropped considerably.

This 10-day moving average animation (from January 1st—March 11th, 2020) of nitrogen dioxide emissions across Europe clearly demonstrates how the drop in Italy’s economic activity has impacted the environment.


Source: European Space Agency (ESA)

That’s not all: a drop in boat traffic also means that Venice’s canals are clear for the time being, as small fish have begun inhabiting the waterways again. Experts are cautious to note that this does not necessarily mean the water quality is better.

NO₂ Emissions Across China

The emissions changes above China are possibly even more obvious to the eye. China is the world’s most important manufacturing hub and a significant contributor to greenhouse gases globally. But in the month following Lunar New Year (a week-long festival in early February), satellite imagery painted a different picture.

no2 emissions wuhan china
Source: NASA Earth Observatory

NO₂ emissions around the Hubei province, the original epicenter of the virus, steeply dropped as factories were forced to shutter their doors for the time being.

What’s more, there were measurable effects in the decline of other emission types from the drop in coal use during the same time, compared to years prior.

China Coal Use FInal

Back to the Status Quo?

In recent weeks, China has been able to flatten the curve of its total COVID-19 cases. As a result, the government is beginning to ease its restrictions—and it’s clear that social and economic activities are starting to pick back up in March.


Source: European Space Agency (ESA)

With the regular chain of events beginning to resume, it remains to be seen whether NO₂ emissions will rebound right back to their pre-pandemic levels.

This bounce-back effect—which can sometimes reverse any overall drop in emissions—is [called] “revenge pollution”. And in China, it has precedent.

Li Shuo, Senior climate policy advisor, Greenpeace East Asia

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Agriculture

MegaMilk: Charting Consolidation in the U.S. Dairy Industry

This graphic charts the American dairy industry’s shift in milk production from small commercial farms to fewer, larger farms.

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MegaMilk: Charting the Consolidation of the Dairy Industry

Today’s dairy industry looks very different to how it did just 30 years ago.

Milk production in the U.S. has increased by a whopping 50% over that time frame—yet, the total number of dairy farms has dropped by three-quarters.

Fewer and larger farms now have the lion’s share of all U.S milk cow inventory. While they have the ability to produce more competitively priced dairy products and provide more value to consumers, it is causing financial devastation for small farmers.

The graphic above uses data from the USDA to chart the rapid consolidation of the American dairy industry between 1992 and 2017.

The End of the Small Dairy Farmer?

In the U.S., the dairy industry is one of the fastest consolidating industries in comparison to almost all other agricultural sectors.

Between 1992 and 2017, small commercial farms with 10-99 cows saw an average decline of 70%. These farms accounted for 48.5% share of all U.S. milk cows in 1992. In 2017, that number stood at just 12.2%.

Over time, small farm production has been replaced by that of bigger and more consolidated “megafarms”—a move that can be attributed to the many benefits that scale brings, such as lower costs of production and the potential to compete in the international market.

 Share of U.S. milk cow inventory (by year)
Herd size199219972002200720122017
1-9 milk cows0.9%0.7%0.6%0.4%0.4%0.4%
10-49 milk cows19.5%13.8%9.2%6.8%5.9%3.6%
50-99 milk cows29%24.5%19.1%13.8%11.1%8.6%
100-199 milk cows19%18%15.4%12.8%10.6%9.4%
200-499 milk cows13.7%15.3%14.7%13.8%12%12%
500-999 milk cows8%10.2%12.2%12.5%11.3%10.7%
>999 milk cows9.9%17.5%28.8%39.9%48.7%55.2%
Total 100%100%100%100%100%100%

The Need For a Survival Strategy

While small dairy farmers simply cannot keep up with larger farms encroaching on their turf, they also have fluctuations in dairy prices to contend with. Milk prices fell in 2018, narrowing the gap between milk prices and feed costs so much that another wave of farm closures ensued.

To make matters worse, many small dairy farmers are close to retirement age, and according to the USDA, exits are more likely if the farm operator is 60 or older.

Despite the hardship facing small dairy farmers, analysts suggest that consumer backlash against large-scale production could present opportunities for small dairy farmers to create premium artisanal products. However, such initiatives would be entirely dependent on the state of the economy and where consumer’s values lie.

The Wider Implications

With milk production shifting to larger farms, a range of both direct and indirect impacts are being felt across the country.

For example, milk production is now predominantly focused in fewer states such as California and Wisconsin, which together accounted for almost 33% of all U.S. milk production in 2018.

In larger farms, the herds are typically confined to tight spaces— rather than grazing in pastures—making animal welfare an issue for many of these farms. Concern over waste contamination and air pollution also brings the environmental sustainability of larger farms into question as they come under more pressure to reduce their impact on the planet.

Changing Tastes

Looking beyond the production of milk, changing consumer preferences could result in the most transformative effects on both large and small scale dairy farmers.

While rising populations are increasing the demand for dairy, per capita milk consumption declined by 24% between 2000 and 2017 in the United States. Consequently, the largest dairy producer in the country, Dean Foods, filed for bankruptcy in 2019, followed by another major milk producer, Borden Dairy, just two months later.

Experts claim that changing consumer preferences, along with competition from other beverage categories, are responsible for 90% of the total dairy decline.

No Country for Old Farms

The confluence of changing economics and an aging population of farmers has brought the U.S. dairy farming industry to a tipping point, and the near future is likely to bring a fresh wave of dairy farm closures.

I don’t see anything that would give them hope at this point. The best advice I can give to these folks, dairy farmers, is to sell out as fast as you can.

– Joe Schroeder, Farm Aid

As smaller farms continue to disappear from America’s rural landscape, the impacts of consolidation will not only affect dairy farmers, but entire rural communities too.

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Green

New Waves: The ESG Megatrend Meets Green Bonds

With ESG investing outperforming benchmarks, could green bonds be next in line? We unpack the megatrend taking hold of the financial world.

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outperformance of esg investing

New Waves: The ESG Megatrend Meets Green Bonds

It’s clear that sustainable investing has been thrown into the limelight.

Increasingly, investors are seeing both the financial and social imperative for sustainable investing. In particular, the rapid growth of green bonds—a fixed income investment that is designed to raise funds for the climate or environment—is booming.

The above infographic from Raconteur navigates the growing green bond market against the backdrop of the broader ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing shift.

Gathering Steam

By the end of 2020, $45 trillion in assets will adhere to sustainable practices, including ESG principles.

Despite the loss of confidence from COVID-19, investors flocked to sustainable-focused funds.In fact, global fund flows hit record levels for Q2 of 2020—surpassing $71 billion.

The fund flows are not without financial warrant. Between April 2015 and April 2019, average returns of socially responsible investments (SRI) outperformed their non-SRI peers. At the same time, 94% of sustainable indices realized stronger returns than their benchmarks between January and March 2020.

The accelerating demand for sustainable investments may seem like old news, but green bonds offer a new avenue.

What Are Green Bonds?

Green bonds raise money for climate and environmental projects, and are issued by governments, corporations, and financial institutions.

Multilateral development banks, which include the European Investment Bank and the World Bank, initially brought them to market in 2007, though they had a slow start. However, in 2019, new issues of green bonds topped $258 billion worldwide—jumping 51% in one year.

Across the green bond market there is a broad spectrum of different debt instruments. These include private placements, covered bonds, and green loans.

Green private placements occur when the sale of bonds are made to private investors, rather than through public offerings. Green covered bonds, on the other hand, are bonds that are backed by a group of assets that are sustainably-focused. Green loans are forms of loans that are meant to finance green projects.

Overall, green bonds can be diversified across a number of different sectors.

The Top Purposes for Green Bonds

What are the top sectors for green bond issuance?

Category20152019
Alternative energy$30.4B$143.8B
Green building$10.7B$63.5B
Sustainable transport$3.7B$58.7B
Energy efficiency$9.5B$47.6B
Sustainable water$3.1B$23.8B
Pollution prevention$1.4B$18.1B
Climate adaptation$1.8B$15.0B
Sustainable forestry/agriculture$1.1B$11.3B

Source: MSCI

Alternative energy, accounting for over $143 billion in green bonds, outpaces all other sectors by a wide margin. Within four years, renewable energy bond issuance has more than quadrupled.

Meanwhile, green building bonds are garnering attention. These instruments finance the construction of energy efficient buildings. Within the industry, a notable green building certification system is the LEED standard, also internationally recognized. Often, real estate investment trusts (REITs) are involved in issuing green building bonds.

Interestingly, Big Tech is also becoming more active within the green bond landscape. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has issued a record $5.8 billion in corporate sustainability bonds to fund everything from energy efficiency projects to affordable housing.

The Top 10 Countries for Green Bonds

On a country-by-country level, green bonds are most common in the U.S., China, and France.

RankCountryGreen Bond Issuance2018-2019 Change (Amount)
1🇺🇸U.S.$50.6B44%
2🇨🇳China$30.1B1%
3🇫🇷France$29.5B113%
4🇩🇪Germany$18.7B144%
5🇳🇱Netherlands$15.1B105%
6🇸🇪Sweden$10.3B66%
7🇯🇵Japan$7.2B73%
8🇨🇦Canada$7B63%
9🇮🇹Italy$6.8B128%
10🇪🇸Spain$6.5B3%
Top 10 Total$181.8B49%

Source: Climate Bonds Initiative

Germany issued its first multi-billion dollar government green bonds in just 2019. One catalyst behind this was the European Central Bank’s announcement that the environment would become a “mission critical” priority going forward.

This may contribute to the fact that both Germany and France saw the biggest change between 2018 and 2019.

Opening the Floodgates

As sustainable investing becomes front and center on the global agenda, questions about its impact on returns have arisen.

During times of both extreme exuberance and market crisis, companies with higher sustainability ratings have outperformed their respective benchmark. However, there is still a long way to go. Even with the record issuance of green bonds in 2019, they make up just 3% of all global bonds issued.

As demand for sustainable investments quickly grows, could it spell a watershed decade ahead for green bonds?

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