How to Use COVID-19 to Make your Workplace Greener

The “lonely” Brooklyn College in June

This is the beautiful campus where I teach. There are almost no students; it looks lonely. Granted, I took the photograph on Sunday, June 21st, a day when the campus likely wouldn’t look much different under ordinary circumstances. It was the first time that I visited since the beginning of lockdown in mid-March. Like most schools in the country, Brooklyn College is still in lockdown; we can expect to see a similar picture through at least the beginning of the fall semester. Over this period, we will continue with distance teaching/learning. We are definitely getting better at it—both on the students’ part and that of the faculty. But the experience is different—all of us miss the mix of formal and informal interactions with each other that are an essential part of the college experience.

The NYT thinks this might become the new normal. Its article, “’We Could Be Feeling This for the Next Decade’: Virus Hits College Towns,” predicts some long-term impacts that the pandemic will have on college campuses.

Today, I would like to do something somewhat rare: emphasize an important advantage of this new reality.

In previous blogs (June 418, 2019) I described New York City and State’s detailed legislation regarding how to bring the state to carbon neutral by mid-century. This goal approximately conforms with the Paris agreement’s commitment to limit climate change to a temperature rise of 2oC by that time. My June 18, 2019 blog outlined my suggestions about how Brooklyn College (and other institutions) could use these requirements as a teaching moment for its students. By incorporating our students in our implementation of this transition, we could impart certain experiences that might be marketable in their post-graduation job searches.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown have provided us with a unique opportunity to directly differentiate between student-driven and infrastructure-driven energy use on campus. This opens the door for a more detailed understanding of how we can reduce the energy needed to serve the same student population.

As I mentioned in the June 2019 blogs, NY State and City regulations do not directly target schools. Rather, they tackle buildings, businesses, transportation, and other large energy users. The emphasis is on carbon emissions. The two main tools to achieve the desired reductions in carbon emissions are: reducing the amount of energy used and transitioning the sources of that energy to non-fossil fuel sources (solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, etc.).

In other words, simply replacing energy sources and updating the corresponding storage capacity is not the full answer. We must also examine how we use energy, especially if that comes in the form of electricity use. Our energy saving should directly scale with our number of users. COVID-19 and the resultant shutdowns give us an important reference for how much energy we use to support the infrastructure with almost no individual users.

In my June 2, 2020 blog, I gave an anecdotal example of the consumption of electricity in New York City during the pandemic. In spite of the increase in domestic consumption because of the lockdown, the total electricity consumption has decreased relative to the pre-pandemic period. This is a direct result of the decrease in electricity consumption in the business sector. That power draw is now restricted to the electricity needed for immediate infrastructure use. Looking at this, my college hopes to find a way to minimize such infrastructure energy requirements without affecting the energy needs of its users.

The not so simple solution that is emerging—which will be the focus of my next semester—is localizing the electricity infrastructure and limiting energy use to absolute essentials. We can achieve this in part by more extensively incorporating microgrids into our local electrical sourcing.

I have written extensively on microgrids throughout the more than 8 years of this blog. You can search for the term for previous entries.

Microgrids are not new to CUNY. I have outlined their general definition as well as explained how they relate to my school. From the July 2, 2019 blog:

Electrical systems that can connect and communicate with the utility grid that are also capable of operating independently using their own power generation are considered microgrids. Single buildings or an entire community can be designed to operate as a microgrid. Microgrid infrastructures often provide emergency power to hospitals, shelters or other critical facilities that need to function during an electrical outage. Microgrids can include conventional distributed generators (i.e. diesel or natural gas gensets), combined heat and power (CHP), renewable energy such as PV, energy storage, or a hybrid combination of technologies. If inverters are used, such as for a resilient PV system, they must be able to switch between grid-interactive mode and microgrid (intentional island) mode in order to operate as a microgrid. For large microgrid systems that include distributed energy resources (DER), a supervisory control system (a system that controls many individual controllers) is typically required to communicate with and coordinate both loads and DER.

Obviously, CUNY is not the only institution interested in microgrids. A piece from the Journal of Higher Education from January 2018 summarizes the more general attention:

The Department of Energy defines a microgrid as: “a local energy grid with control capability, which means it can disconnect from the traditional grid and operate autonomously. A microgrid, for the most part, operates while connected to the traditional grid but can break off, or island itself, and operate on its own. It can be powered by distributed generators, batteries and renewable sources.”

Essentially, these energy systems are capable of balancing captive supply and demand resources to maintain stable service within a defined boundary.

… Schools such as UC San Diego, MIT, Montclair, Princeton, and Santa Clara University, have stepped up to the call for greater resiliency. Although the microgrid industry is relatively young, it’s popularity is growing in higher ed …

Resiliency is another huge draw for universities, especially in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and most recently, the devastation from Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Brief brownouts, let alone blackouts, are highly detrimental in the event of extreme weather, where universities are looked upon to be strongholds for the community. The threat of cyber attacks is yet another push. The ability to operate independently from the central power grid is invaluable in the face of disaster, as proved by Princeton’s resilient response while half a million people lost power during Superstorm Sandy.

I have also looked into how certain developing countries are using microgrids:

We tried to monitor this process through a documentary film; to accomplish this we needed some help but the result, along with the full list of contributors, can be seen in the short film “Quest for Energy.”

The film illustrates the initial delivery of electricity in the small town of Gosaba. This delivery comes by way of a microgrid that runs through some of the main streets in town. Here, the microgrid doesn’t function as an additional, supplemental aspect of the main grid. In fact, since in this case, the microgrid is the only grid, in a sense, it resembles the main grid in the US more than 100 years ago.

My school has collected some preliminary data on our use of electricity during COVID-19 shutdowns. I will try to analyze these in next week’s blog and draw some conclusions about applying the methodology in the larger context of more general applications outside of the home.

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Extreme Weather & the Energy Transition

All over the world, people are getting tired of the lockdowns and frozen economies, and yet the virus is still on the rise in many places. As countries and states reopen, carbon emissions are resurging. Here is what that means in terms of the transition between fossil fuels and sustainable energy sources:

As countries begin rolling out plans to restart their economies after the brutal shock inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic, the three biggest producers of planet-warming gases — the European Union, the United States and China — are writing scripts that push humanity in very different directions.

Europe this week laid out a vision of a green future, with a proposed recovery package worth more than $800 billion that would transition away from fossil fuels and put people to work making old buildings energy-efficient.

In the United States, the White House is steadily slashing environmental protections and Republicans are using the Green New Deal as a political cudgel against their opponents.

China has given a green light to build new coal plants but it also declined to set specific economic growth targets for this year, a move that came as a relief to environmentalists because it reduces the pressure to turn up the country’s industrial machine quickly.

These are characteristic approaches. Europe, more than ever, is trying to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels. The US federal government continues in its denial of the necessity to do so, and China is still vacillating.

But the US government does not always speak for its residents or industries. Four days ago, the NYT ran an article about how climate change is becoming an important consideration in financing projects:

Changes to the housing market are just one of myriad ways global warming is disrupting American life, including spreading disease and threatening the food supply. It could also be one of the most economically significant. During the 2008 financial crisis, a decline in home values helped cripple the financial system and pushed almost nine million Americans out of work.

But increased flooding nationwide could have more far-reaching consequences on financial housing markets. In 2016, Freddie Mac’s chief economist at the time, Sean Becketti, warned that losses from flooding both inland and along the coasts are “likely to be greater in total than those experienced in the housing crisis and the Great Recession.”

Threats of large climate change-induced fires are starting to have similar impacts on the financial industry. As climate change continues to intensify extreme weather phenomena and make them more frequent, it would not be surprising to see more such concern in financial sectors.

Meanwhile, in correlation to these shifts, investments in renewables are beginning to surpass those in oil. So too has renewable energy production surpassed that of coal in the US:

Solar, wind and other renewable sources have toppled coal in energy generation in the United States for the first time in over 130 years, with the coronavirus pandemic accelerating a decline in coal that has profound implications for the climate crisis.

Not since wood was the main source of American energy in the 19th century has a renewable resource been used more heavily than coal, but 2019 saw a historic reversal, according to US government figures.

Coal consumption fell by 15%, down for the sixth year in a row, while renewables edged up by 1%. This meant renewables surpassed coal for the first time since at least 1885, a year when Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and America’s first skyscraper was erected in Chicago.

Are these changes convincing major energy companies to shift their investments? Not yet:

Investments in solar and wind energy projects by the world’s oil majors over the next five years are expected to reach $17.5 billion, a Rystad Energy analysis finds. But a closer look at the numbers reveals that some $10 billion, or 57% of the amount, is expected to be invested by a single company, Equinor, the only investor whose majority of greenfield capex will be towards renewable energy.

Equinor, the Norwegian state-controlled energy giant, will drive renewable investment among majors, spending $6.5 billion in the next three years to build its capital-intensive offshore wind portfolio. We do not expect this forecast to be heavily affected by the fluctuating oil price or capex cuts, as much of the company’s renewable portfolio is already committed, such as the massive Dogger Bank offshore wind project in the UK.

What about the politics?

Is the world at large (aside from Europe, the US, and China) ready to adapt some of the lessons of the pandemic to try to mitigate the ongoing climate change disaster? Among the 10 most populous countries that make up roughly 60% of the total global population (see my May 5, 2020 blog about their pandemic levels), the loudest anti-climate change mitigation voices are those of the presidents of the US and Brazil. We rarely hear much from the other 8 countries. Most of the mitigation-supporting voices come from the European Union, the UK, and the many small countries that climate change threatens directly.

Our presidential election is scheduled for November. This election will likely decide the US’s attitude to climate change going forward. Please make sure you vote! If the federal approach to the problem were to change, the US could potentially match Europe in its commitment to mitigation.

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COVID-19-Inspired Longer-Term Changes to the Energy Transition

I started to write this blog on Thursday, June 11th. On that day, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that, “we can’t shut down the economy again.” The Federal Reserve and others had already made grim predictions about the long-term economic impacts of the pandemic. Meanwhile, many countries and some major US states were reporting the virus’ acceleration. It was crystal clear that the coronavirus is still with us and will be for some time. By Thursday, even in the face of this continued threat, the US (and many other countries worldwide) had begun to reopen the economy and ease lockdown protocols.

Secretary Mnuchin’s announcement implied that if the feared second wave materializes (as it almost certainly will), the shutdown steps that proved to be effective in “flattening the curve” in the first wave will not be repeated. He did not specify what would replace them. When the stock market closed a few hours later, stocks had dropped by nearly 6% (S&P 500).

As I have mentioned, the first wave, which, by all accounts is still not over in many places, ravaged the world, with more than 7.5 million confirmed cases and more than 400,000 deaths. The US itself has had 2 million confirmed cases and more than 100,000 deaths. The 1918-1919 Spanish flu marks the only valid global precedent for what we are experiencing now. In that event, the second wave was more damaging than the first.

So how should we interpret Secretary Mnuchin’s pronouncement? The most straightforward interpretation is that a direct threat of 2 million additional cases and at least 100,000 additional deaths will not be enough to convince him to apply the tools that proved to be effective in the beginning of the pandemic. I prefer to be a bit more generous to the Secretary and assume that he is simply discounting the future, hoping that a second wave will not materialize. The stock market’s immediate reaction, however, indicates that the market doesn’t share his blind optimism. It seems that regardless of what the federal government does, the economy will follow the health and safety of the people. Likewise, the real pace of the economy’s reopening will follow the virus and not the government’s official pronouncements.

This discounting of the future has expanded into the private sector with a familiar, “heads I win, tails you lose” twist: management is requiring employees to sign a waiver to go back to work:

Whether companies are liable if their workers and customers catch the coronavirus has become a key question as businesses seek to reopen around the country. Companies and universities — and the groups that represent them — say they are vulnerable to a wave of lawsuits if they reopen while the coronavirus continues to circulate widely, and they are pushing Congress for temporary legal protections they say will help get the economy running again.

In other words, policymakers want to discount our futures, not their own. No wonder there is no mass consensus on the issue.

Now, there is no question that if the lockdowns last much longer, the global economy will freeze and many people will die as a result. Much of the death will take place because of a shortage of necessities such as food, healthcare, and shelter. So, if Secretary Mnuchin had been completely honest, he would have presented the issue as a choice of who will live and who will die. Once the healthcare systems are overwhelmed, this is the kind of choice they face. Politicians never want to present choices in these terms; discounting a possible bad future is much easier because nobody can hold them accountable until the future becomes the present—often after they leave office.

Here is Dr. Anthony Fauci’s take on reopening:

Reopening requires caution, he says. Over the past decades, we have never experienced a shutdown on such a global scale.

“That certainly contained what would have been a much more massive global outbreak, but you can’t stay locked down forever,” he says. “That’s the reason why we’re trying to carefully and prudently, with guidelines, get back to a degree of normality, and we’ve never ever had that situation before.”

During the interview, Fauci digs further into the country’s reopening. He looks ahead at what we may face in the future and shares advice on how we can best prepare. Read the highlights below.

My interpretation: we should open slowly—in stages following the guidelines that make workplaces conform to social distancing protocols—and we should engage extensively in testing and contact tracing. If a serious local outbreak erupts, we close again. The practical implications of this kind of opening are very complicated. Since I am teaching at a university that is trying to follow similar guidelines, I will be able to report on its successes and failures as we go along.

When will all of this be over?  We will be on our way to pre-pandemic conditions, with some pandemic-learned improvements, when vaccines are universally available globally. We need to approach global herd immunity with infection rates (R0) significantly smaller than 1. Even at that point, the virus will still be with us but we will be able to live with it.

Energy Intensity

The condition of an economy obviously drives energy use. The parameter that quantifies this connection is called energy intensity. It ties into the amount of energy we use and how that reflects economic activity, usually measured by the GDP. I have discussed energy intensity on many occasions here; just put it in the search box for more background. The global energy intensity for 2018 was 0.11koe/$2015. To clarify, the units are as follows: 1koe (kg of oil equivalent) = 40,000 Btu or 10,000 Cal; $2015 is the US $ value in 2015. With constant energy intensity, the decline in energy use follows the decline in GDP. However, as we have seen in more recent blogs, the coronavirus drives changes in the kind of energy used in addition to lessening total energy use. Domestic electricity rises but business electricity decreases, resulting in a decrease of total electricity use. In addition, as public transportation is one of the most dangerous virus transmission mechanisms, many people are shifting to bicycles for short distance travel. This shift is positive in terms of a transition to more sustainable energy mix but is likely temporary. We can expect that as the economy starts to reopen, the use of private cars will exceed pre-pandemic use, which is bad for sustainable energy use.

Almost every major transition starts with the destruction of business as usual habits, followed by trial-and-error-established alternatives (have a look at the September 17, 2019 blog about polar bears). Throughout history, we have been better at the destructive part of the process, while the constructive part requires more pain and effort. But eventually we learn how to benefit from the transition.

We are currently facing the virus-driven destructive phase. Many of us are now thinking about the transition and how we could shape it to help mitigate the coming climate change disaster.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), one of the most influential international organizations in the energy field, has taken some flak for its approach:

(Bloomberg) — The International Energy Agency marginalizes key climate goals in its research, according to an open letter from dozens of investors, business leaders, researchers and climate policy advocates.

The Paris-based organization is largely funded by rich countries and advises nations on energy policy. It publishes an annual report called the World Energy Outlook, which projects how the global energy system is likely to look in years to come. The scenarios it uses have become the bedrock of energy policy for governments around the world and provide key insights for global investors to check whether they are putting money in the right places.

The letter sent to Birol this week, which was coordinated by campaign group Mission 2020, asks the agency to make central an energy-use scenario that shows how quickly emissions must fall to see the Paris Agreement’s more aggressive target of limiting global heating to 1.5°C. The signatories include Laurence Tubiana, chief executive officer of the European Climate Foundation; Nigel Topping, climate action champion for the COP26 climate meeting; Christiana Figueres, former chief climate negotiator at the United Nations; Oliver Bate, chairman of the board at Allianz SE; Jesper Brodin, chief executive officer of Ikea Group, among others.

If the world were to warm just a few tenths of a degree further, the economic damage wrought would be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. It would bring the forced migration of millions, and the extinction of thousands of more species, according to an influential 2018 report from the United Nations.

The world has warmed 1°C since 1880, and the pace of warming has accelerated in the last three decades.

The same article cites the IEA’s response to the letter:

The IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario does show which energy pathways are consistent with a 50% chance of keeping global temperatures from rising beyond 1.5°C, an IEA spokesperson said. The critical lever that would help achieve it is called “negative emissions,” or removing CO₂ from the air by natural means or technology.

Under the most ambitious climate target, scientists warn that global emissions must reach net-zero around 2050. The most aggressive scenario in the WEO sees carbon emissions fall to about 10 billion metric tons globally by 2050—a quarter of 2019 emissions.

Next week we will see how we are doing in adopting, or expressing intentions to adopt, some of the IEA’s recommendations.

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Negative Energy Pricing

Last week, I outlined some markers of how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the global energy transition and how that ties in with climate change in the long run. For instance, the global decrease in GDP and the resulting drop in energy use have led to a temporary reduction in global carbon emissions. Even though we are using more electricity while stuck at home, our businesses and services are using less electricity due to lockdown protocols. This may become more permanent as our society reshapes in the wake of the pandemic.

What I didn’t cover last week is the emergence of a relatively new term in the global energy vocabulary that might also stay with us after the pandemic decays: negative energy pricing.

The meaning of the term is simple: the producer of the energy pays the user, instead of the more common scenario where users pay for energy. The need for this action has the potential to create major disruptions in the energy transition.

Keep in mind that in this context, to “produce” means to convert energy from a less accessible form such as crude oil in the ground to a more useful form such as gasoline in your car. You cannot produce energy from nothing. That would violate one of the central laws of physics: the law of conservation of energy.

Ok, back to negative energy pricing. Why should the producer pay us to use the more convenient energy that cost him money to convert? In short, because there have been major disruptions to the producer’s supply and demand assumptions.

I have mentioned changes in oil prices pretty often on this blog (see July 14, 2015 and/or type oil prices in the search box). Figure 1, compiled on April 20, 2020, shows a striking drop. Up to the start of the pandemic at the end of January 2020, we see the normal fluctuations driven by changes in supply and demand and various countries’ interest. As in all capitalist enterprises, the goal is to market the product at the highest possible price.

negative energy pricing

Figure 1Price of West Texas Oil (Brent Crude), as of April 20, 2020

Shortly after the pandemic started, we saw a free-fall in prices. On April 20th, the value reached around -$50/barrel. That meant that if you wanted to buy the oil, you could get it for free, along with an extra $50. The main reason for such generosity was that at the time, the producers couldn’t (or didn’t want to) stop drilling—but they had no customers who wanted to buy the oil and had run out of places to store it. So, they resorted to paying people to take it. Today, the price of oil is hovering around $40/barrel. We are starting to notice some increase in economic activity and many of the producers agreed to decrease production.

Similar dynamics apply to electricity use. Below are some paragraphs from a May 22nd piece in The New York Times:

 

The pandemic is turning energy markets upside-down. Some consumers will get paid for using electricity.

by Stanley Reed

The coronavirus pandemic has played havoc with energy markets. Last month, the price of benchmark American crude oil fell below zero as the economy shut down and demand plunged.

And now a British utility this weekend will actually pay some of its residential consumers to use electricity — to plug in the appliances, and run them full blast.

So-called negative electricity prices usually show up in wholesale power markets, when a big electricity user like a factory or a water treatment plant is paid to consume more power. Having too much power on the line could lead to damaged equipment or even blackouts.

Negative prices were once relatively rare, but during the pandemic have suddenly become almost routine in Britain, Germany and other European countries.

With Britain in lockdown since March 23 and offices and factories closed, demand for electricity fell by around 15 percent in April, while at the same time wind farms, solar panels, nuclear plants and other generating sources continued to churn out power.

In recent weeks, renewable energy sources like wind and solar have played an increasingly large role in the European power system both because of enormous investments in these installations and because of favorable weather conditions. At the same time, the burning of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, has slipped. Britain, for instance, has not consumed any coal for power generation for weeks.

 Such a critical shuttering of the balance between supply and demand is not restricted to major global disasters like COVID-19. The energy transition from fossil fuels to more sustainable energy sources can be an instigator on its own. Below is an example from Germany from December 2017:

Power Prices Go Negative in Germany, a Positive for Energy Users

by Stanley Reed

Germany has spent $200 billion over the past two decades to promote cleaner sources of electricity. That enormous investment is now having an unexpected impact — consumers are now actually paid to use power on occasion, as was the case over the weekend.

Power prices plunged below zero for much of Sunday and the early hours of Christmas Day on the EPEX Spot, a large European power trading exchange, the result of low demand, unseasonably warm weather and strong breezes that provided an abundance of wind power on the grid.

Such “negative prices” are not the norm in Germany, but they are far from rare, thanks to the country’s effort to encourage investment in greener forms of power generation. Prices for electricity in Germany have dipped below zero — meaning customers are being paid to consume power — more than 100 times this year alone, according to EPEX Spot.

I discussed the energy transition in Germany after my visit there last summer (October 1, 2019). At the time, I was not aware of the associated negative pricing. Such pricing always has a short duration, lasting only until the energy market learns to adjust its supply to sudden changes in demand. With sustainable energy sources in the form of wind and/or solar panels, it is a bit more challenging to address oversupply than it is with oil drilling because most of the expenses come during the installation stage. Once the systems are installed, the supply is weather-dependent and basically cost-free. But you can’t exactly reduce production. Excess electricity storage with hydroelectric facilities and/or batteries are almost never constructed to accommodate sudden changes in demand. Probably the only economically feasible way to achieve balance is through agreements with power companies that can cross state lines. Europe, the US, and other countries are pursuing such options. We all benefit from better distribution of abundant supply.

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Coronavirus Impacts on the Energy Transition

 What impacts will the COVID-19 pandemic have on the longer-term climate change disaster? I’ll begin to address this topic here, starting with some observations, and expand upon it with some suggestions in future blogs. Throughout my more than 8 years of running this blog, I have emphasized the global energy transition, I have aimed to apply a variety of strategies to maximize economic performance while minimizing the impact of energy use on the climate. Understanding COVID-19’s impacts on the energy transition will benefit all of us in our quest to optimize future prospects.

The pandemic started in Wuhan, China, reaching its first peak around the end of January. The first cases were reported toward the end of December 2019, and the virus was identified on January 7th. By January 23rd, the city of Wuhan went into complete lockdown; the rest of China followed shortly.

Figure 1 illustrates the country’s almost immediate drop in coal use around the Chinese New Year (January 25th). It shows the coal consumption at six power plants, compared to previous years. Initially, there appeared to be no significant difference because the Chinese New Year is a holiday that usually leads to sharp drops in economic activity and therefore in power consumption. However, after the holiday, for every year but 2020, the economic activity and power consumption soon returned to normal. We can directly associate 2020’s drop of about 25% in coal consumption with attempts to block COVID-19 via an extended lockdown. That lockdown marked a halt to most economic activity, which in turn resulted in a major decrease in coal consumption across China.

Figure 1Drop in China’s coal consumption at six major power firms, surrounding the Chinese New Year (January 25th)

As the virus spread around the world, lockdowns followed—and with them, a sharp decrease in energy use. More than 80% of the world’s energy still originates in fossil fuels. Figure 2 shows estimated global carbon emissions as they reflect the growth of the pandemic.

Figure 2 Model estimating global carbon emissions for  2019 – early 2020

One cannot measure changes in global carbon emissions on a daily basis in the same way that we look at changes in coal use (Figure 1) but intuitively, everyone has predicted major pandemic-driven reductions in carbon emissions. After all, economic activity—measured in terms of GDP/Capita (see February 24, 2015 blog)—is the dominant term in driving carbon emissions. It is not a surprise then, that a drastic virus-powered economic decline will result in a major drop in carbon emissions.

By the same token, since the pandemic is self-terminating, either through herd immunity or effective vaccine, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict that once the pandemic runs its course, energy use and resulting carbon emissions will return to pre-pandemic levels. In the meantime, though, we can enjoy a clear view of the Himalayas from New Delhi and a much cleaner sky almost everywhere on Earth.

However, one of the coronavirus’ direct impacts on energy use will probably be longer lived. This has to do with our use of electricity. Most of us, locked in and forced to do our work remotely, cannot escape the need for more electricity. Almost everything that we do at home now requires it. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs (see October 22, 2019), electricity is a secondary energy form. In most cases, that requires conversion from a primary energy source, many of which originate with fossil fuels and emit a lot of carbon dioxide. The conversion efficiency from primary energy to electricity is a little more than  30%. We can see this difference directly by comparing the price of a unit of energy derived from electricity to one derived directly from oil, natural gas or coal (think for example, heating a room). We pay about three times more for the energy coming from electricity than that from direct fuel.

Doing everything from home, especially during the summer, when the air-conditioners, TV, and all of our computers are constantly on, increases the amount of electricity that we use significantly. However, we mustn’t forget the piece that we have just cut out of the picture: our workplaces. Those extra buildings require even more electricity.

Figure 3 shows the total power load in New York City on April 16, 2020 compared to the same date in 2019.

Figure 3Electricity use in New York City on April 16, 2020 and the same date on 2019

We see a clear decline in electricity use. Every indication suggests that some of this result from an increase in the amount of work that we can perform remotely from home. That’s a factor that may well become permanent once the pandemic runs its course. This transition will probably leave other major imprints on our energy use. I will address some of the more extreme consequences of some of these developments next week.

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Global Disasters at Different Speeds: How Do We Teach and Learn Now?

Israeli beach, May 16th

My university just wrapped up its 2020 spring semester. As in most schools, our classrooms all moved online shortly after the semester began. This shift has applied to most other activities as well. In the US we are just starting to get out and try to return to some semblance of normality.

Connecting climate change and coronavirus

The summer semester at my school will run completely online and there are very good chances that the coming fall semester will follow suit. All of us have to be prepared. I am scheduled to teach three courses next semester, all of which focus on climate change. All of my students will come into my classes having experienced the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. This blog is an important tool in my teaching and gains even more importance as I teach online. I have tried, over the last two months, to emphasize the connections between the pandemic and climate change. Both disasters stem from our interactions with our physical environment. Both are global ailments that have disastrous consequences for humankind. But they have very different time scales.

The viral pandemic rose in a matter of days and has taken weeks and months to begin its decline. Climate change, on the other hand, has risen over several generations and may not ever reach a peak. We can immediately see the consequences of the pandemic but many refuse to recognize those of climate change. As I mentioned last week, both phenomena are explicitly contagious. In the case of the pandemic, the agent of contagion is the virus. In climate change, the spread comes from the heat that we produce via our changes—both direct and indirect—to the chemistry of the atmosphere. All of this is somewhat theoretical but the two disasters certainly interact with each other.

Today I wish to look at how COVID-19 has impacted four countries:

Present status of the impact of COVID-19 on four countries (as of May 23rd)

The opening picture of this blog shows a happy, boisterous beach scene in Israel. But these days the emotion it provokes in viewers may be more of trepidation than anticipation. The photograph was taken in Israel on Saturday, May 16th, in the middle of a week- long heat wave with temperatures ranging between 40-50oC (104-122oF) throughout the country. This was the most extreme mid-spring heat wave to strike Israel for at least ten years. The same heat wave struck the entire Middle East, with peak temperatures that reached 55oC (131oF) in some Gulf states.

These temperatures are much higher than the boundary of extreme danger where heat and/or sun stroke become highly likely (see the July 3, 2018 blog titled, “Heat Wave”). Israel has had one of the most successful lockdowns against the pandemic. The heat wave came only a few days after Israeli society started to reopen. The people above are trying to fight the heat wave the best way they can think of. As you can see, however, beachgoers completely broke all social distancing protocols. Many Israelis are now fearful of a second wave of the pandemic.

Australia

Meanwhile, we have Australia, where I have some family. My wife and I travel there as often as we can and I have frequently written about climate change impacts there (most recently on November 26, 2019). Nearly everyone that I know was critical of the government for its handling of the recent fires. The extreme fires seem to be growing almost every summer.  Australia is very sensitive to climate change and the fires are one of the most important (and visible) consequences of this vulnerability. The country’s current government is in full agreement with our own president in denying climate change and refusing to actively attempt to decrease its impacts.

Yet, in terms of fighting the coronavirus, the same Australian government has been one of the most effective. The data in the table above show the numbers. The New York Times printed an interesting article about the government’s transition:

Did the Coronavirus Kill Ideology in Australia?

HOBART, Australia — Until four months ago few leaders seemed more influenced — even inspired — by President Trump’s worldview than Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison.

Mr. Morrison’s government was climate-denying, globalism-bashing and displayed an increasingly authoritarian bent. His rhetoric, even if it lacked the sriracha of Trumpetry, riffed on Trumpian themes.

As of Monday morning, Australia, with its 25.5 million people, had recorded a total of 7,054 infections and 99 deaths, according to Worldometers. That’s 277 infections and four deaths for every million people. In the United States, the per capita figures were 4,619 infections and 275 deaths per million by Monday; in Britain, 3,592 infections and 511 deaths per million.

Scientists, whom Mr. Morrison’s party has derided for over a decade, were respectfully asked for their views about the novel coronavirus and, more remarkable still, these views were acted on and amplified. Mr. Morrison dismissed the idea of trying to build herd immunity among the population, calling it a “death sentence.”

A national cabinet was formed in which the states’ premiers (the equivalent of governors) from both the left and the right regularly met by video to plot the course of the nation through the crisis. In this way and others, a government that has been sectarian and divisive became inclusive.

The economic response was as extraordinary. Civil servants who had been told they existed to serve politics and politicians also found their expert advice heeded. A huge relief package of direct fiscal stimulus was rolled out, amounting to 10.6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product — second only in the world to Qatar’s (13 percent). Unemployment benefits were doubled, a generous (though not universal) program of wage subsidy was introduced and child care was made free — all measures that only a few months ago Mr. Morrison’s party would have pilloried as dangerous socialism.

The stimulus plan was designed after negotiations with various civil society groups, including the trade unions. “There are no blue teams or red teams,” Mr. Morrison said in early April. “There are no more unions or bosses. There are just Australians now; that’s all that matters.”

He thanked Sally McManus, the first woman to head Australia’s trade union movement — a socialist and feminist, a bête noire of the right and to the left of the Labor Party mainstream, Ms. McManus is an activist who allies her politics with the likes of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

It was a moment of grace, and as surreal as if Mr. Trump sought the counsel of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and then praised her.

After reading the article I couldn’t escape a certain envy: I wish that our government could show such flexibility from one disaster to the next.

Possible effects of temperature on COVID-19

So far, there has been a rather common assumption (one I shared) that COVID-19 will follow its close relatives, the influenza viruses, and disappear with rising temperatures.  Nobody had any data to support or refute this assertion but China, Iran, Europe, and the US were already heavily infected while many countries in the Southern Hemisphere remained immune.

The possibility of the temperature impact was attractive because it suggested that climate change could be a force to counter such viral pandemics. However, there are still no data to support it. Indeed, Brazil now seems to be the latest hot spot in terms of the virus’ spread. The fact that its president, Jair Bolsonaro, is even worse than President Trump in his rejection of science is not much comfort. He acknowledges neither the underlying science of the virus nor that of climate change. The issue is under active research but the conditions make such work challenging. We will probably will have to wait until the end of the pandemic before we can see solid science on the matter.

Meanwhile, other climate change-amplified natural disasters continue to play out that limit people’s abilities to retain social distance. The super-cyclone Amphan struck India and Bangladesh in the middle of the lockdown, especially affecting hundreds of Rohingya refugees, who have been placed in large, crowded shelters. In the US, dams in Michigan and Virginia collapsed due to unusually heavy rain, but more than 800 people turned out to volunteer despite the pandemic. Both of these instances show the strong inter-connectivity of COVID-19 and climate change.

Stay safe.

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Phased Reopening and Lessons to Learn

Figure 1 Dana Summers’ cartoon on phased opening

Roughly two months ago, my campus completely shifted to remote learning and teaching and I started lockdown. I have made a corresponding shift here, covering the COVID-19 viral pandemic that now dominates our life. Epidemiology and virology are not my fields and aside from my general science background I don’t have any more to contribute here than most of my readers. As a result, I have tried to focus my discussions on comparing COVID-19 with climate change. Both are global phenomena that have disastrous consequences for humankind but they have very different time scales.

Since talk of the pandemic has now shifted to the safety of opening the world economies based on various countries’ rates of infection, death or stability, I feel that I need to make the interconnection between COVID-19 and climate change more solid. To do that, I will resort to a much more basic aspect of both climate change and COVID-19: their contagiousness.

The dictionary defines contagiousness as, “capable of being transmitted by bodily contact with an infected person or object” (Dictionary.com). There is no question that COVID-19 is highly contagious. I described its mechanism of contagion in some detail in a previous blog (April 14, 2020). It is essentially a chain reaction in which the virus replicates in its hosts and given the opportunity, moves to other possible hosts to spread its impacts. The quantitative parameter that I described in that blog was the R0 (R naught) number: “the average number of individuals that are impacted in a given situation.” In that blog, I included the R0 number for a few previous viral pandemics. Any virus with an R0 number greater than 1 is considered contagious. COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) has one of 1.5-3.5.

Germany is the only country that I am aware of that uses the R0 number as its criterion for the controlled reopening of its economy. The R0 number in Germany rests around 1. Some days it’s a bit higher and some days it is lower.

“[A]s long as it remains around 1.0, that is considered a stagnation and not an increase.” … A reproduction factor of 1.0 means that, on average, one infected person is spreading the virus to another person.

This article explains some of the reasons for these fluctuations. However, to calculate an R0 number you need a solid estimate of the spread of an infection. Our best estimate is that in the US, only about 3% of the population has been tested. We cannot calculate the extent of infection or an R0 number based on such a low availability of testing.

Viral pandemics are not the only processes that proceed through chain reactions.

The most positive example of this type of growth—and the one that is probably the most familiar—is money that is deposited in the bank with a constant interest rate. The bank pays interest on the growing money. So, if I start with $100 at 10% interest per year, I will have $110 at the end of the first year, $121 at the end of the second year, etc. I will double my money in 7 years. The formula for this growth is:

Doubling time = 70/P(%)

Where P is the interest rate. This kind of growth is known as exponential growth, and I have discussed it throughout this blog in varying degrees of detail. Populations grow in a similar way.

Perhaps the most famous growth that follows the same mechanism is that of nuclear fission, which gives rise to the energy released in nuclear reactions (for a power plant) or nuclear explosions (in atom bombs).

This is probably the most visible analogue to the viral spread. Figure 2 shows how it works with a fission of uranium. A single neutron (one of the basic components of the nucleus of an atom) hits a uranium nucleus and the collision splits the nucleus into approximately two smaller nuclei. In the process, the collision releases a few more neutrons and a great deal of energy. In the case of uranium, the collision releases 2-3 neutrons which, if they can, will hit other nuclei and repeat the process. This will continue as long as the neutrons can find other uranium nuclei to collide with.

Figure 2Nuclear chain reaction

The viruses in a pandemic are the equivalent of the neutrons and the R0 number corresponds to the average number of the “productive” neutrons that actually split the next nuclei. To be able to sustain the chain reaction, the R0 number has to be greater than 1. If it is smaller, the chain reaction is quickly extinguished. If each nuclear collision releases between 2-3 neutrons, how can the equivalent “productive” collision have a value smaller than 1?

  1. The geometry of the material is such that many of the neutrons escape and thus are unable to hit other nuclei. Since the target nuclei are not absorbing all of the collisions, some of the neutrons are wasted in propagating the chain reaction. The easiest way to control the average number of neutrons that actually participate in the process is to adjust the geometry of the sample with a big enough mass to minimize the number of escaped neutrons. This configuration with this mass is called a critical mass, below which a nuclear explosion will not take place (December 18, 2018 blog).
  2. The second way to adjust the equivalent of “productive” neutrons is to adjust for their velocity by moving the neutrons through a medium such as graphite that can slow them down. This technique is mainly used in nuclear reactors.

In terms of the virus, the easiest way to minimize the transmission and reduce the R0 is to maintain social distancing through lockdowns, use protective gear that will block transmission, and/or find a vaccine to combat the virus.

What does all of this have to do with climate change?

To answer this question, I have to go back to a graph which I have used in multiple previous blogs. The last time that I used Figure 3 was on April 28, 2020, when I compared the uncertainty in predicting the impact of climate change and COVID-19. This figure is especially helpful when discussing the role of feedback in climate change.

Within a chain reaction, any propagation accelerates through positive feedback. This means that the products of the reaction accelerate its further progress. As I mentioned in the July 10, 2018 blog, Figure 3 illustrates the impact of the most important greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide) on the rising global temperature. However, only about one third of the impact comes directly from the physical properties of the greenhouse gas. The other two thirds of the impact originate from feedbacks such as: the rising temperature of the ocean, which enhances evaporation and increases atmospheric concentrations of water vapor; the heated atmosphere’s ability to hold increased amounts of water vapor. Another feedback mechanism involves the melting of snow caps, which decreases reflection of solar radiation (decreased albedo). In Figure 3, the main accelerating element is heat.

GHG, global warming, stabilization, carbon intensity, modeling

Figure 3 – Carbon intensity (July 10, 2018 blog)

This is because two thirds of the driving forces behind the temperature rise do not come from direct exposure to greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide but rather feedback to the direct heating. The feedback comes from physical heat-dependent driving forces such as changes in the atmospheric water vapor, clouds, snow melt, permafrost melt, changes in solubility of carbon dioxide in the ocean, etc. The J. Hansen et. al. manuscript, “Climate Sensitivity: Analysis of Feedback Mechanisms” (1984), is an excellent early paper on many of these feedback mechanisms.

Wild fires, such as those that took place in California and Australia, represent another important climate change feedback mechanism: a chemical one. Wood burns at a high temperature and heat increases its flammability, so local ignition raises the temperature in the close vicinity and thus spreads the burning area.

I teach climate change at various levels in my school. One of the research projects that I am doing with some of my students is following and quantifying our school’s conversion into a more sustainable energy user. Such conversion is now mandated by both state and city laws. The COVID-19 lockdowns are an opportunity to differentiate aspects of Brooklyn College’s energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the energy serves the students directly; some powers the school’s infrastructure. This information is crucial to optimizing campus energy use on both budgetary and sustainability levels.

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How Do We End a Pandemic?

When I read my morning paper on May 4th, three articles jumped out at me:

As Trump Pushes to Reopen, Government Sees virus toll nearly doubling

WASHINGTON — As President Trump presses states to reopen their economies, his administration is privately projecting a steady rise in coronavirus infections and deaths over the next several weeks, reaching about 3,000 daily deaths on June 1 — nearly double the current level.

The projections, based on data collected by various agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and laid out in an internal document obtained Monday by The New York Times, forecast about 200,000 new cases each day by the end of May, up from about 30,000 cases now. There are currently about 1,750 deaths per day, the data shows.

Here’s Cuomo’s Plan for Reopening New York

Net hospitalizations for cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, must either show a continuous 14-day decline or total no more than 15 new hospitalizations a day on average over three days. The latter would probably be a realistic goal only in less populated areas.

  • 14-day decline in virus-related hospital deaths, or fewer than five a day, averaged over three days. New York City and many other parts of the state have reached that benchmark, but Long Island and the Hudson Valley have not.

  • A three-day rate of new hospitalizations below two per 100,000 residents a day, something that was well beyond the grasp of New York City and its suburbs on Monday.

  • A hospital-bed vacancy rate of at least 30 percent, which Mr. Cuomo has said is necessary to be prepared for possible new waves of the disease in the future. Most parts of New York have met the threshold, despite more than 9,600 coronavirus patients still being hospitalized.

  • An availability rate of at least 30 percent for intensive care unit beds; 3,330 people remain in such units, often on ventilators, which are needed in severe cases of the disease.

  • A weekly average of 30 virus tests per 1,000 residents a month. This category could be the most challenging one to meet in many rural or more remote areas, where testing, and thus positive results, has lagged far behind major cities, like New York, which already is surpassing this goal.

  • Finally, the governor also wants at least 30 working contact tracers per 100,000 residents as part of a program led by Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, who has given $10.5 million for the effort. Mr. Cuomo has described the initiative as “a monumental undertaking,” requiring “an army” of tracers, some of whom will be public employees who have been redeployed.

Billions Could Live in Extreme Heat Zones Within Decades, Study Finds

As the climate continues to warm over the next half-century, up to one-third of the world’s population is likely to live in areas that are considered unsuitably hot for humans, scientists said Monday.

Currently fewer than 25 million people live in the world’s hottest areas, which are mostly in the Sahara region in Africa with mean annual temperatures above about 84 degrees Fahrenheit, or 29 Celsius. But the researchers said that by 2070 such extreme heat could encompass a much larger part of Africa, as well as parts of India, the Middle East, South America, Southeast Asia and Australia.

With the global population projected to rise to about 10 billion by 2070, that means as many as 3.5 billion people could inhabit those areas. Some of them could migrate to cooler areas, but that would bring economic and societal disruption with it.

The parts of the world that could become unsuitably hot “are precisely the areas that are growing the fastest,” said Timothy A. Kohler, an archaeologist at Washington State University and an author of the study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

All three of these articles made me think of the 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic. One third of the world population (then below 2 billion) was infected. The flu left about 50 million dead, especially impacting European colonies that have since become independent developing countries. Within the US, about 650,000 people died.

 

Newspaper image from 1918 about the Spanish flu

The pandemic, which overlapped with the end of WW1, occurred only about one generation (25 years or so) after scientists first discovered viruses.

It is unnerving that—like the Spanish flu—climate change could decimate the world population. Pandemics have an end, though. Once the number of cases reaches a critical level, the virus begins to decline. Climate change is not self-terminating (at least not on a human time scale). With no intervention, Earth will become yet another planet not suitable for life.

The 1918 pandemic reached its peak at one third of the global population (approximately 600 million). Since it struck so soon after the discovery of viruses, we did not have any of the modern-day technologies that we have now. There were no vaccines or medicines; our bodies’ immune systems had to produce antibodies with no outside help.

The main tool available at the time was social distancing, which was applied wherever possible. In the current pandemic, the virus spread too quickly for us to use our acquired scientific knowledge to curb it. We are once again relying mostly on social distancing. Now, though, almost the entire world is mobilizing to develop the tools that will limit further the spread of the virus. The goal is to end the pandemic by developing herd-immunity. Israel has coordinated one such scientific mobilization.

Meanwhile, Sweden is trying to force herd immunity by closing its borders and limiting its social distancing measures to older citizens. The experiment is still in progress but it is costing a lot of lives. Sweden has the highest number of cases and deaths among the Scandinavian countries.

We still have a way to go before the end of the pandemic. Infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm has said we are only in the 2nd inning of a nine-inning game. Nor is everyone taking the necessary actions. Within the US, the federal government seems more preoccupied with the economy and the November elections than with how to end the pandemic with the minimum number of casualties.

With regards to both climate change and viral pandemics, we must strive for a balance between preserving the economy and preserving life. This should not mean that some people must sacrifice their lives to save the economy.

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Scaling Properties of COVID-19

Saturday was a beautiful spring day. The Brooklyn green market downstairs was open. The street and the market were relatively (in the pandemic era) crowded; well managed social distancing was enforced but many people went without masks. The talk of the town almost everywhere was whether or not to re-open and how to do so.

The Economist invited contributions from a few influential contributors to outline their views on a post-COVID-19 world. Among them was Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and co-director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The latter is one of the leading global charities, whose motto is, “All lives have equal value.”

He addresses the repercussions of the coronavirus. But the majority of his contribution focuses on his belief that a post-COVID-19 world cannot come about until we can develop effective vaccines and treatments to eradicate the virus everywhere:

WHEN HISTORIANS write the book on the covid-19 pandemic, what we’ve lived through so far will probably take up only the first third or so. The bulk of the story will be what happens next.

In most of Europe, East Asia and North America the peak of the pandemic will probably have passed by the end of this month. In a few weeks’ time, many hope, things will return to the way they were in December. Unfortunately, that won’t happen.

I believe that humanity will beat this pandemic, but only when most of the population is vaccinated. Until then, life will not return to normal. Even if governments lift shelter-in-place orders and businesses reopen their doors, humans have a natural aversion to exposing themselves to disease. Airports won’t have large crowds. Sports will be played in basically empty stadiums. And the world economy will be depressed because demand will stay low and people will spend more conservatively.

As the pandemic slows in developed nations, it will accelerate in developing ones. Their experience, however, will be worse. In poorer countries, where fewer jobs can be done remotely, distancing measures won’t work as well. The virus will spread quickly, and health systems won’t be able to care for the infected. Covid-19 overwhelmed cities like New York, but the data suggest that even a single Manhattan hospital has more intensive-care beds than most African countries. Millions could die.

Wealthy nations can help, for example, by making sure critical supplies don’t just go to the highest bidder. But people in rich and poor places alike will be safe only once we have an effective medical solution for this virus, which means a vaccine.

Keep it global

I hope wealthy nations include poorer ones in these preparations, especially by devoting more foreign aid to building up their primary health-care systems. Even the most self-interested person—or isolationist government—should agree with this by now. This pandemic has shown us that viruses don’t obey border laws and that we are all connected biologically by a network of microscopic germs, whether we like it or not. If a novel virus appears in a poor country, we want its doctors to have the ability to spot it and contain it as soon as possible.

The future, according to Mr. Gates, relies on our ability to eliminate the virus from all countries, regardless of their economic status. So far, we have focused almost exclusively on the richest countries in the world, including the US, Europe, and China (which the World Bank classifies as upper-middle income).

Table 1 lists the number of new coronavirus cases and the resulting deaths in the world’s 10 most populous countries. Together, they account for 60% of the global population. I used data compiled from the Johns Hopkins University database on May 1st.

 Table 1 – COVID-19 cases in the most populous countries (May 1, 2020)

COVID 19, coronavirus, population, death

The richest country on this list is the USA. The order of magnitude of difference in density of COVID-19 cases and deaths between the US and the other countries on the list is striking. These differences might result from other location-sensitive causes, but I find that a weak argument. The other major collections of COVID-19 concentrations have been in rich European countries such as Italy, UK, Spain, and France, which are not included in Table 1. Considering that (as I have mentioned in previous blogs) even in the US, the number of cases—and even deaths—are grossly underestimated, we can only conclude that we have no idea what is happening in low- and middle-income countries. Within the US, it was only recently, and in a few states, that COVID-19-related deaths outside of hospitals were included in tallies. Poverty has a direct correlation to weakness in medical infrastructure, so it is unsurprising that other countries have an even harder time estimating casualties. As Mr. Gates has noted, the pandemic cannot be eradicated until it can be dealt with globally.

We can see the scaling of the pandemic everywhere we look. I live in the hottest hot spot in the US: New York City.

Figures 1 and 2 provide the May 1st COVID-19 case distributions in my state:

COVID 19, coronavirus, New York, cases, deaths Figure 1New York State coronavirus numbers, as of May 1st

COVID 19, coronavirus, New York, cases, deathsFigure 2The distribution of coronavirus cases in New York State (NYS)

The data show that my state, which makes up 6% of the country’s population, is “home” to 30% of the cases in the US. Meanwhile, NYC accounts for 55% of the cases in NYS, even though it only makes up 42% of the state’s population. We also have data that show the distribution by zip code. From there, one can identify hot spots where people refuse to take social distancing and lockdown measures and/or it is impossible to implement those policies. Of course, essential workers such as the medical community, police, firemen, and crucial online or off-line retail providers (e.g. pharmacies and grocery stores) cannot stay home. Nursing homes are incredibly vulnerable, as are foreign laborers that work in rich countries, homeless people everywhere, and prisoners. Meanwhile, some orthodox religious communities view certain communal activities to be more important than individual safety. By their nature, most of these exceptions to social distancing have much higher concentrations in urban environment than rural ones. Thus, urban hot spots such as NYC, London and Paris attract major headlines for their outbreaks.

Stay safe, everyone, and thanks to those essential workers!

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Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst: COVID-19

Last week, I promised to shift my focus to COVID-19’s impact on developing countries. So far, most of the media attention has been limited to the coronavirus’ impact on richer countries (e.g. US, Europe, Australia, Canada, etc.). The exact definition of “rich” or “developed” differs by source but generally makes up roughly 15% of the population, globally. This leaves 85% of the global population unaccounted for. Given that COVID-19 is a global pandemic, we cannot stop it unless and until we address the ability of developing countries to fight it.

I have decided, however, to momentarily shelve that topic. Many of those wealthy countries are shifting their discussions from fighting the virus’ spread (flattening the curve) to mitigating its disastrous effects on the economy.

Countries have adopted social distancing policies, urging or demanding that their citizens stay home, since the virus emerged. China started these measures at the end of January; the US and Europe followed at the beginning of March (my school in NYC closed on March 11th). In the beginning of April, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, revealed the virus’ frightening impact in the US. She showed a model predicting the future development of the pandemic in the US, assuming continued social distancing.

Predicting the Future

I discussed her presentation in a previous blog (April 7th, 2020) but I didn’t go to any details about the model on which the predictions were based. At that time, we were looking at a possible 100,000-240,000 deaths just in the US. The curve shows the number of deaths per day vs. the expected number of days of the pandemic.

Deborah Birx, COVID-19, coronavirus, chart, prediction, model, modeling

Figure 1 Dr. Deborah Birx on March 31st

The curve in her chart comes from a model developed by Dr. Chris Murray from the University of Washington. His methodology incorporates almost everything we know about the pandemic. It is updated on an almost daily basis, using public sources.

IHME

The latest report from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE) came out on April 21st and included the data shown in Figure 2. It shows the number of deaths in the US starting to stabilize by the end of April, around 60,000.

COVID 19, coronavirus, IHME, report, forecast, future, model, deathsFigure 2 – Total number of deaths in the US, the predicted increases, and the estimates of the uncertainty in these predictions in the recent version of the IHME report.

Summary 

Background: Hospitals need to plan for the surge in demand in each state or region in the United States and the European Economic Area (EEA) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Planners need forecasts of the most likely trajectory in the coming weeks and will want to plan for the higher values in the range of those forecasts. To date, forecasts of what is most likely to occur in the weeks ahead are not available for states in the USA or for all countries in the EEA.

 Methods: This study used data on confirmed COVID-19 deaths by day from local and national government websites and WHO. Data on hospital capacity and utilization and observed COVID 19 utilization data from select locations were obtained from publicly available sources and direct contributions of data from select local governments. We develop a mixed effects non-linear regression framework to estimate the trajectory of the cumulative and daily death rate as a function of the implementation of social distancing measures, supported by additional evidence from mobile phone data. An extended mixture model was used in data rich settings to capture asymmetric daily death patterns. Health service needs were forecast using a micro-simulation model that estimates hospital admissions, ICU admissions, length of stay, and ventilator need using available data on clinical practices in COVID-19 patients. We assume that those jurisdictions that have not implemented school closures, non-essential business closures, and stay at home orders will do so within twenty-one days.

Findings: Compared to licensed capacity and average annual occupancy rates, excess demand in the USA from COVID-19 at the estimated peak of the epidemic (the end of the second week of April) is predicted to be 9,079 (95% UI 253–61,937) total beds and 9,356 (3,526–29,714) ICU beds. At the peak of the epidemic, ventilator use is predicted to be 16,545 (8,083–41,991). The corresponding numbers for EEA countries are 120,080 (119,183–121,107), 32,291 (32,157– 32,425) and 28,973 (28,868–29,085) at a peak of April 6. The date of peak daily deaths varies from March 30 through May 12 by state in the USA and March 27 through May 4 by country in 31 the EEA. We estimate that through the end of July, there will be 60,308 (34,063–140,381) deaths from COVID-19 in the USA and 143,088 (101,131–253,163) deaths in the EEA. Deaths from COVID-19 are estimated to drop below 0.3 per million between May 4 and June 29 by state in the USA and between May 4 and July 13 by country in the EEA. Timing of the peak need for   hospital resource requirements varies considerably across states in the USA and across regions of Europe.

The IHME models and most other similar models worldwide are not designed as tools for policy makers and/or societies to decide when to start to relax lockdowns. They are meant to predict the capacity that health care systems will need to take care of the infected people. As everybody has seen, especially in hot spots such as New York City, when the flow of serious symptomatic infections exceeds the capacity of the healthcare system to handle these patients, many people die unnecessarily. Sending more people to already overcrowded healthcare facilities in the middle of pandemics is not the way to go. We have to be prepared.

The PDF format of the full report is a must-read. It lays out the methodology in great detail (some high math is involved) and points to the up-to-date global information on which the models are based. As in most predictive models, it includes three elements: past, future, and uncertainty (we can see them clearly in Figures 1 and 2). In Figure 1, the curve starts at the beginning of the impact in the US (18 deaths/day); in Figure 2 the starting point is basically the same. Close to three weeks later (April 20th), the total number of confirmed dead from COVID-19 in the US reached 40,000. From that point we start the prediction stage, including the range of uncertainty associated with these predictions.

Testing Antibodies

In the case of COVID-19, the main source of uncertainty is the global inability to measure the virus’ level of penetration. We have made some progress in this area, albeit small. The governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, just announced the results of a blood test of 3,000 randomly chosen NYC residents for new coronavirus antibodies. When a person is infected, his/her immune system creates specific antibodies that can fight the infection. Detection of these antibodies is one of the best indicators that a given person was infected with the virus.

The tests indicated 14% of the cases were positive. If we try (as the Governor did very cautiously) to expand this result to the entire population of New York State (about 20 million) and assume that the 3,000 people tested in NYC is a representative sample of the state population, the testing suggests that 14% of 20 million = 2.8 million people were infected. As of four days ago, the state officially reported about 260,000 positive cases, with mortalities close to 16,000 to date. Comparing these results would indicate that only 1 in 10 infected New Yorkers is being confirmed through testing. It would also indicate that the mortality rate of this pandemic in NYS is 0.5%, way below the 3.4% reported earlier by the WHO.

However, by universal admission (including that of Governor Cuomo) the sample of 3,000 from NYC is not representative of the rest of the state. Many of the infections throughout the world, including in NYC, are taking place in hot spots such as nursing homes, low-income neighborhoods, highly concentrated observant religious communities, etc. It will take many more tests to obtain reliable information—thus the uncertainty in the models.

Antibody test in various forms have already been taking place on an experimental basis throughout the world. But the tests are not reliably accurate. The results range from around 5% to 14% positive. There is agreement that such tests have the potential to give a wider view of the degree of infection than direct testing—especially because most of the latter goes to symptomatic cases.

After a Peak (If There Is One)

Nor do we know how exactly the pandemic will decline. It could be a single smooth event as shown directly in Figure 1 and indirectly in Figure 2 (Figure 2 shows cumulative deaths and daily deaths). Or it could—and most likely will—include several waves of infection before it plays out. The only valid “recent” precedent is the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, which had an estimated fatality of one third of the global population. That pandemic ended after three waves, the middle one being the deadliest.

Let me now move to climate change. The issues are connected because, similarly to the present pandemic, we need to prepare in order to minimize the immense impacts. Preparation needs modeling of the future. We’ve discussed such modeling of climate change in previous blogs (type carbon intensity in the search box). Figure 3, for example, comes from my July 10, 2018 blog.

GHG, global warming, stabilization, carbon intensity, modeling

Figure 3 – Projected carbon intensity of global temperature increase caused by climate change

The emission of carbon dioxide is a measurable quantity. The impact of the increase in global temperature is shown on the vertical axis. The area between the top line and the bottom line in the figure is an estimate of the uncertainty (as in Figures 1 and 2). In this case, the uncertainty is not caused by the lack of measurements but rather by unpredictable contributions from feedbacks (see again the July 10, 2018 blog). For instance, the enhanced evaporation of water vapor serves as an effective greenhouse gas. One of the important differences between Figure 1 and Figure 3 is that Figure 1 has a maximum, after which the impact decreases until it disappears (not counting possible waves). Figure 3 doesn’t have one, at least within a human timescale. Climate change is an even larger existential threat than COVID-19. We can’t go backward in time to prevent the coronavirus but it’s not too early to minimize anthropogenic climate impacts through changes in the way we live.

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