When COVID-19 hit, these CSIRO scientists pitched in to help in ways you wouldn't expect – The Canberra Times


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You’ve heard how scientists with Australia’s national science agency are helping to lead the country’s fight against COVID-19 through genomic testing and vaccine trials. But did you know CSIRO’s experts in economics, food security and climate change have also been helping to shape the nation’s response to the once-in-a-century challenge we’re facing? Here are some of their stories. Before coronavirus struck, Pep Canadell’s day job was about budgets – but not the kind you’re thinking of. As executive director of the Global Carbon Project and chief research scientist at the CSIRO Climate Science Centre, he co-ordinated a network of nearly 90 scientists from 56 institutions around the world, working to track how human activity was adding to and subtracting from the levels of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides in our atmosphere. As the virus forced country after country to shut down industries, order residents to stay at home and close their borders back in April, Dr Canadell and his team worked fast to find a way to indirectly measure global greenhouse gases to determine the impact of the unfolding pandemic. And they found something remarkable. Carbon dioxide and fossil fuel emissions had fallen by 17 per cent. The last time emissions were at that level was 15 years ago, Dr Canadell said. “We have never seen anything like that. This is unprecedented,” Dr Canadell said. “We have not [had] one year in the the modern history of the global fossil fuel society over the last 200 years, where in a single year emissions would decline by more than 1 per cent.” When the Global Financial Crisis struck more than a decade ago, it was accompanied by a 1.5 per cent reduction in global emissions. But as countries pumped billions of dollars into their economies to cushion the blow, emissions returned to previous levels in less than a year and began to grow even faster. Dr Canadell said that would not be the case this time – which presented the world with an enormous opportunity. “You know, before the Global Financial Crisis, we had barely any time to think about it, it happened very quickly, smashed a good part of the economy, we kind of injected a lot of money, and then we tried to recover it,” Dr Canadell said. “And I said, within a year, you know, the global GDP was almost back on track and global emissions were increasing really fast. “But this time, we’re going to be investing and recovering the economy for probably a number of years. And I think there is a unique opportunity with the slowdown of emissions to think about, alright, let’s use this slowdown as perhaps the global peak in emissions, you know, from here, we will not grow anymore.” Australia also had an opportunity to use its COVID stimulus packages to invest in low-carbon technologies to prevent emissions from rebounding, Dr Canadell said. “It is an opportunity, it is a choice,” he said. Before coronavirus, CSIRO Futures lead economist Katherine Wynn was exploring what the market for plant mince could be like in 2030. But as panic buyers stripped beef mince from supermarket shelves as COVID-19 hit Australia, her focus turned to finding the opportunities in the immediate chaos. “We’re quite well known for our roadmaps, we tend to do large-scale … roadmaps that look out into the future to see different technologies and different sectors,” Dr Wynn said. “So when COVID came, it was kind of a pivot for us, because we were asked to look at COVID and what a COVID recovery might look like in terms of science and technology opportunities, and key sectors that might be most involved in the economic recovery, and then longer-term resilience.” Trying to crunch the numbers, though, was like trying to take the wind speed in a hurricane. “It was challenging because things were changing all the time and there was so much uncertainty,” Dr Wynn said. “But it was also challenging because understandably economics wasn’t front and centre at the start [of the pandemic], and nor should it have been, it was a health response. And it took a while before people started, you know, thinking about the economic recovery.” One of the key opportunities they identified was to grow Australia’s reputation as a “clean and green” food exporter. Australia’s unique geography makes it one of the most food-secure countries in the world, and coronavirus had shown how the supply of limited resources could be easily upset by unpredictable events. Consumers were also looking for more sustainably and ethically sourced products, their research found. They estimated the market for alternative proteins developed in Australia – plant or insect based – could be worth $4.1 billion domestically, and $2.5 billion in exports by 2030. Energy was also identified as another major opportunity. Dr Wynn and her team said Australia had the potential to become the world’s first clean hydrogen energy exporter. The industry could add $11 billion to GDP by 2050, their analysis found. In September, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the Australian Renewable Energy Agency would invest $70.2 million to set up a hydrogen export hub. Dr Wynn said she was proud to have helped lay out a path forward for Australia post-pandemic, whilst the country was still swept up in the early response to the virus. “It did feel really good to be doing something very positive and to be really focused on the opportunities when a lot of people were still talking about the negatives,” Dr Wynn said. While Australians faced empty supermarket shelves earlier in the pandemic, a more dire situation was shaping up in the Indo-Pacific region. The pandemic heightened existing threats to food security, resulting in food shortages or prices rises in some areas. Enter Monica van Wensveen and Steve Crimp. Ms van Wensveen is a researcher with CSIRO who works with farmers, researchers and businesses to improve food security in Asia and Africa. Dr Crimp is a climate applications scientist with the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University. They were part of a team of 30 researchers looking at the impact of COVID-19 on food security in the Indo-Pacific region early in the pandemic, trying to find the pressure points. Ms van Wensveen said some of the factors driving food shortages in the region were similar to what was going on in Australia. “Actually the issues are not supply side, so it’s not in production, but it’s more in logistics and labour and things that are a little bit further down that supply chain,” she said. Dr Crimp said while the loss of tourists meant in some places there was more food, it was not the kind of food local communities wanted. “For instance, in the Indo-Pacific because of the lockdowns, you had no one travelling, no tourism, and so demand for the fresh produce that’s produced by the local communities evaporated overnight,” Dr Crimp said. “And so we were left with these large gluts of food, which in some instances they couldn’t even get to market to sell. “And the produce that’s being sold is not really what the local communities would actually eat, so the price of tuna in Fiji dropped, the price of pineapples dropped, so there were instances where prices actually fell, but commonly where we have supermarkets and retailers involved, that’s where we’ve seen those prices go up.” Countries in the Indo-Pacific are no strangers to large shocks to their food systems, Ms van Wensveen said. “[COVID] is one shock and it’s a devastating shock [but] in the areas that we work, there are a lot of other shocks,” she said. “There are pests and disease, things like African swine fever, there are a couple of typhoons at least every year in the Philippines, there are cyclone seasons. “So there are a lot of shocks already and COVID is another one that’s hit in the middle of all of these other ones. So in a lot of ways, it lets us focus a little bit more on resilience to any shock, COVID being one of those.” The lessons they’ve learnt through their research will not only help our neighbouring countries get through the pandemic, it will also help keep peace in the wider region. “If there is an increase in food insecurity in the Indo-Pacific, you’ll find that there will need to be more interventions from organisations like the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade,” Dr Crimp said. “We might find also ourselves in a situation where the frequency by which we have to provide support, both financially or through food or a mobilisation of other resources, could [increase] if the systems become more insecure. “The other concern that we have seen during the current pandemic is that in some locations, because food has become scarce, we’ve seen mass migration from urban areas back into the rural areas. That has caused considerable stress anxiety with the local communities. And so that has increased, in some instances, violence and crime. “Law and order is tied to food security. And so if resources become much more scarce, then there is the impact that has on law and order.”

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