Explaining the COVID-19 outbreak and mitigation measures

Raya Muttarak, Deputy Program Director, IIASA World Population Program

Raya Muttarak writes about what we have learnt about the COVID-19 outbreak so far, and how collective mitigation measures could influence the spread of the disease.

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Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China back in January, we have learnt a lot about the virus: we know how to detect the symptoms, and a vaccination is currently being developed. However, there are still many uncertainties:

We for example don’t know enough about the disease’s fatality rate – mainly because we don’t precisely know how many people are infected, which is the denominator. We also don’t know exactly how the virus spreads. Generally, it is assumed that the virus spreads from person-to-person through close contact (within about 1 meter) and through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It is also thought that COVID-19 can spread from contact with contaminated surfaces or objects.

In addition, knowledge about the timing of infectiousness is still uncertain. There is evidence that the transmission can happen before the onset of symptoms, although it is commonly thought that people are most contagious when they are most symptomatic. This information is crucial, because if we know the timing patterns of the transmission, we could adopt better measures around when to quarantine an infected person.

Lastly, we don’t yet know whether the spread of the disease will slow down once the weather gets warmer.

What is currently happening in Iran, Italy, Japan, and South Korea may be unique to these countries, but it is more than likely that most countries will eventually experience the spread of COVID-19. In this regard, epidemiologists have estimated that in the absence of mitigation measures, in the worst-case scenario, approximately 60% of the population would become infected. In February, Nancy Messonnier, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Centre for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases in the US, warned that “It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen.”

We learnt from an epidemiological transmission model that public efforts to curb the transmission of the disease should be directed towards flattening the epidemic curve. This is crucial, since the treatment of severe lung failure caused by COVID-19 requires ventilators to help patients breathe in intensive care units (ICUs). Not a single country in the world has the capacity to absorb the large number of people who would need intensive care at the same time. Experience from Italy shows that about 10% of all patients who test positive for COVID-19 require intensive care. Although efforts have been made to increase ICU capacity, the rapidly growing number of infected patients is overloading the healthcare system. Measures to reduce transmission in order to slow down the epidemic over the course of the year will therefore significantly mitigate the impact of COVID-19.

A transmission model with and without intervention.
Source: CDC. (2007). Interim Pre-pandemic Planning Guidance: Community Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Mitigation in the United States—. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The figure above shows the distribution of infectious cases with and without intervention. If the outbreak peak can be delayed, this allows the health system and healthcare professionals to bring the number of persons that require hospitalization and intensive care in line with the nation’s capacity to provide medical care. To flatten the epidemic curve and lower peak morbidity and mortality, calls for both government response and individual actions.

We will have to follow the protocol of the Austrian Health Ministry, but certain practices such as social distancing, washing hands, and avoiding gathering in crowded places, can help reduce the transmission of the disease. While it is true that young and healthy people are less likely to get sick and die from COVID-19, they can still be a virus carrier and thus transmit the disease to other vulnerable subgroups of the population, such as older people and those with underlying health conditions. An article recently published in The Lancet provides helpful information to better understand the current situation and explains why fighting against COVID-19 will take collective action.

Reference:

Anderson R, Heesterbeek H, Klinkenberg D, & Hollingsworth T (2020). How will country-based mitigation measures influence the course of the COVID-19 epidemic? The Lancet 0(0) DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30567-5

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

African cities are critical to global climate mitigation

By Chibulu Luo, PhD student at the University of Toronto (Civil Engineering) and 2016 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant.

Luo’s recent publication in the Journal of Cleaner Production considers the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable communities when exploring policy insights for Dar es Salaam’s  energy transition.

Global discourse on sustainability rarely focuses on the Africa region as a key player in the global transition towards a cleaner low-carbon energy future. Filling this critical gap in the research is what has stimulated my doctoral studies.

Dar es Salaam © Timwege | Dreamstime

According to a recent report from the International Energy Agency, the Africa region contributed only 3.7% towards global energy-related GHG emissions in 2018, which perhaps explains why the region has remained largely ignored in current research on energy. However, with colleagues at the University of Toronto and Ontario Tech University, I assert that the growth of large cities such as Dar es Salaam should be critically considered in global efforts on climate change mitigation. My recently published paper estimates to the year 2050, the potential changes in residential energy use and GHG emissions in Dar es Salaam, among Africa’s most populous and fastest-growing cities. Like many African cities,contributes little to global GHG emissions; however, our paper projects a substantial increase in future emissions by the year 2050 – up to 4 to 24 times– which is quite overwhelming. According to our findings, this jump in emissions is due to a higher urban population in 2050 (expected to triple from 5 million in 2015, to as much as 16 million in 2050), and increased energy access and electricity consumption.

In developing these future estimates, we used the Shared-Socio-Economic Pathways (SSPs), developed by IIASA researchers, as a guiding narrative. While there may be some uncertainties with projecting GHG emissions pathways several years into the future, our findings could derive insights to the emissions pathways of other large African cities, and the critical role that these cities can play in global efforts to achieve the 1.5-degree, or even, 2-degree global warming target.

© Chibulu Luo

I first heard about the SSPs as a participant in the IIASA YSSP in 2016; this period was a tremendous time of growth and reflection in terms of my research direction. The opportunity to work amongst such a talented group of scientists in a collaborative environment and on issues that are globally relevant was an unforgettable experience. I especially enjoyed working with colleagues in the IIASA Risk and Resilience Program, where some of my early research ideas were formulated. At that time, I focused largely on resilience measures for infrastructure development in African cities, including Dar es Salaam.

 

 

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

More updates from IIASA alumni or information on the IIASA network may be found here.

Cost effective solutions to manage nutrient pollution in the Yangtze

By Maryna Strokal, Department of Environmental Sciences, Water Systems and Global Change, Wageningen University and Research, The Netherlands

Maryna Strokal discusses a new integrated approach to finding cost-effective solutions for nutrient pollution and coastal eutrophication developed with IIASA colleagues.

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Have you ever wondered why the water in some rivers appear to be green? The green tinge you see is due to eutrophication, which means that too many nutrients – specifically nitrogen and phosphorus – are present in the water. This happens because rivers receive these nutrients from various land-based activities like run-off from agricultural fields and sewage effluents from cities. Rivers in turn export many of these nutrients to coastal waters, where it serves as food for algae. Too many nutrients, however, cause the algae and their blooms to grow more than normal. Because algae consumes a lot of oxygen, this lowers the available oxygen supply in the water, killing off fish and other marine life. Some algae can also be toxic to people when they eat seafood that have been exposed to, or fed on it. Polluted river water on the other hand, is unfit for direct use as drinking water, or for cooking, showering, or any of our other daily needs. Before we can use this water, it needs to be treated, which of course costs money.

To better understand and address these issues, I worked with colleagues from IIASA, Wageningen University, and China to develop an integrated approach to identify cost-effective solutions (read cheapest) to reduce river pollution and thus coastal eutrophication. Our integrated approach takes into account human activities on land, land use, the economy, the climate, and hydrology. We implemented the new approach for the Yangtze Basin in China.

The Yangtze is the third longest river in the world and exports nutrients from ten sub-basins to the East China Sea, where the coast often experiences severe eutrophication problems that may increase in the coming years. The Chinese government has called for effective actions to ensure clean water for both people and nature.

In our paper on this work, which was recently published in the journal Resources, Conservation, and Recycling, my colleagues and I conclude that reducing more than 80% of nutrient pollution in the Yangtze will cost US$ 1–3 billion in 2050. This cost might seem high, but it is actually far below 10% of the income level in the Yangtze basin. We also identified an opportunity in the negative or zero cost range, which would result in a below 80% reduction in nutrient export by the Yangtze. This negative or zero cost alternative involves options to recycle manure on land and reduce the use of chemical fertilizers (Figure 1). More recycling means that farmers will buy less chemical fertilizers and potential savings can then compensate for the expenses related to recycling the manure. We also illustrated the costs that would be involved for ten sub-basins to reduce their nutrient export to coastal waters.

Figure 1. Summarized illustration of eutrophication causes and cost-effective solutions for reducing nutrient export by Yangtze and thus coastal eutrophication in the East China Sea in 2050.

Recycling manure on cropland is an important and cost-effective solution for agriculture in the sub-basins of the Yangtze River (Figure 1). Manure is rich in the nutrients that crops need, and opting for this alternative instead of chemical fertilizers avoids loss of nutrients to rivers, and thus ultimately to coastal waters. Current practices are however still far from ideal, with manure – and especially liquid manure – often being discharged into water because crop and livestock farms are far away from each other, which makes it practically and economically difficult to transport manure to where it is needed. Another reason is the historical practice of farmers using chemical fertilizers on their crops – it is simply how they are used to doing things. Unfortunately, the amounts of fertilizers that farmers apply are often far above what crops actually need, thus leading to river pollution.

The Chinese government are investing in combining crop and livestock production, in other words, they are creating an agricultural sector where crops are used to feed animals and manure from the animals is in turn used to fertilize crops. Chinese scientists are working with farmers to implement these solutions.

In our paper, we showed that these solutions are not only sustainable, but also cost-effective in terms of avoiding coastal eutrophication. We invite you to read our paper for more details.

References

Strokal M, Kahil T, Wada Y, Albiac J, Bai Z, Ermolieva T, Langan S, Ma L, et al. (2020). Cost-effective management of coastal eutrophication: A case study for the Yangtze River basin. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 154: e104635. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2019.104635.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Climate change or behavior change?

By Leila Niamir, post-doctoral researcher at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC), Germany and IIASA YSSP alumna.

© Cienpies Design Illustrations | Dreamstime

 

Weather patterns and events are changing and becoming more extreme, sea levels are rising, and greenhouse gas emissions are now at their highest levels in history[1]. Climate change is affecting every individual in every city on every continent. It imposes adverse impact on people, communities, and countries, disrupting regional and national economies.

Climate change mitigation refers to efforts to reduce or prevent emissions of greenhouse gases to limit the magnitude of long-term climate change. Human consumption, in combination with a growing population, contributes to climate change by increasing the rate of greenhouse gas emissions. Over the last decade, instigated by the Paris Agreement, the efforts to limit global warming have been expanding. Significant attention is being devoted to new energy technologies on both the production and consumption sides, however, changes in individual behavior and management practices as part of the mitigation strategy are often neglected[2]. This might derive from the complex nature of human which makes explaining and affecting human behavior a difficult task. As a result, quantitative tools to assess household emissions, considering the diversity of behaviors and a variety of psychological and social factors influencing them beyond purely economic considerations, are scarce. Policymakers would benefit from reliable decision supporting tools that explore the interaction of economic decision-making and behavioral heterogeneity in households behavioral and lifestyle changes, when testing climate mitigation policies (e.g. carbon pricing, subsidies)[3].

To address this issue, during my PhD research I studied the potential of behavioral changes among heterogeneous households regarding energy use and their role in mitigating climate change. By designing and conducting comprehensive household surveys, it was explored how individuals choose to change their energy behaviour and what factors trigger or inhibit these choices[4]. Decision support tools are designed to study large-scale regional effects of individual actions, and to explore how they may change over time and space. The model explicitly treats behavioral triggers and barriers at the individual level, assuming that energy use decision making is a multi-stage process. This theoretically and empirically grounded simulation model offers policymakers ways to explore various policy portfolios by running diverse micro and macro scenarios.

This model was further developed during my collaboration with the IIASA the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP), to estimate macro impacts of individuals’ energy behavioral changes on carbon emissions[5]. Within this research, we illustrate that individual energy behavior, especially when amplified through social context, shapes energy demand and, consequently, carbon emissions. Our results show that residential energy demand is strongly linked to personal and social norms. When assessing the cumulative impacts of these behavioral processes, we quantify individual and combined effects of social dynamics and of carbon pricing on individual energy efficiency and on the aggregated regional energy demand and emissions.

In summary, mitigating climate change requires massive worldwide efforts and strong involvement of regions, cities, businesses and individuals, in addition to the commitments at the national levels. We should always keep in mind that every single behavior matters. In the transition to a sustainable and resilient society, we –as individuals- are more than just consumers.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

[1] Climate Action– United Nations Sustainable Development Goals https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/climate-change/
[2] Creutzig, F., et al. (2018). Towards demand-side solutions for mitigating climate change. Nature Climate Change 8, 268-271; Grubler, A., et al. (2018). A low energy demand scenario for meeting the 1.5 degrees C target and sustainable development goals without negative emission technologies. Nature Energy 3, 515-527; Creutzig, F., et al. (2016). Beyond Technology: Demand-Side Solutions for Climate Change Mitigation. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Vol 41 41, 173-198
[3] Niamir, L. (2019). Behavioural Climate Change Mitigation: from individual energy choices to demand-side potential (University of Twente); Creutzig, F., et al. (2018). Towards demand-side solutions for mitigating climate change. Nature Climate Change 8, 268-271; Niamir, L., et al. (2018). Transition to low-carbon economy: Assessing cumulative impacts of individual behavioural changes. Energy Policy, 118; Stern N. Economics: Current climate models are grossly misleading. Nature 530(7591):407–9.
[4] Niamir, L. et al. (2020). Demand-side solutions for climate mitigation: Bottom-up drivers of household energy behaviour change in the Netherlands and Spain. Energy Research & Social Science, 62, 101356.
[5] The results of this collaboration was presented at Impacts World 2017 and won the best prize, and also published at Climatic Change Journal.

Creating a safe space to talk about gender equality in science

By Luiza Toledo, Science Communication Fellow 2019

Luiza Toledo writes about how the IIASA Women in Science Club are creating a safe space to talk about and advance gender equality in science.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. A recent report titled, Harnessing the power of data for gender equality produced by Equal Measures 2030, however, shows that we still have a long way to go before this goal becomes a reality.

Countries in Europe and North America, along with two in the Asia-Pacific region (Australia and New Zealand), achieved the highest scores in terms of gender equality on the 2019 SDG Gender Index. However, even in the 20 top scoring countries, there are still indicators that score low. This suggests that even the countries with high overall scores for gender equality are struggling with thorny issues – one of them being women in science and technology research positions.

As an international institute, IIASA was founded on the principles of equal opportunity, which naturally includes equality in terms of gender balance. The institute’s 2018 Annual Report shows that the number of early-career female IIASA scientists has steadily been growing over the last few years. Since 2016, the number of female researchers increased by 24%, with most of the new hires joining as research assistants. Despite this increasing trend, the gap for PhD level researchers is as high as it has ever been with men outnumbering women four to one. In addition, there is a lack of female scientists in the over-40 age group, which is by no means unique to IIASA. Researchers who study gender and science have even compared women’s careers in science with a leaky pipeline – a flawed channel system that loses quantity before it reaches the destination.

©Liebentritt_Christoph

Even though it is unrealistic to expect a 100% retention of women in science related careers (or any career for that matter), male researchers still have a much higher retention rate in scientific careers than their female colleagues do, and this is where the problem lies. According to the IIASA Diversity and Work Environment Report from 2015, male researchers at IIASA on average stay with the institute for seven years, whereas female researchers stay for only four years. To overcome the leaky pipeline effect, we should start creating a workplace culture that aims to recruit and retain women and is more open to discussing and tackling gender issues in academia, thereby developing a safe networking space.

The Women in Science Club (WISC) at IIASA is a great example of a safe networking space that embraces gender equality and shows the power of women that support other women. Co-led led by Amanda Palazzo, a researcher in the institute’s Ecosystems Services and Management Program, and IIASA Network and Alumni Officer Monika Bauer, the club has a self-proclaimed mission to build a network where women connected to science can share experiences, empower themselves, and highlight the work of other women connected to science.

The idea of creating a network of women in science came about in the fall of 2016 when former Finnish President, Tarja Halonen, visited IIASA. During her visit, she asked to meet with the women of IIASA to talk about diversity and equity issues. This conversation was the first of several meetings that are now attended by women (and men) across the institute under the auspices of WISC.

“The conversation was inspiring and after that first meeting, a few of us thought about organizing a club to continue working on the issues that came up from our discussion with President Halonen,” explains Palazzo.

Nowadays, the WISC organizers arrange lunchtime meetings known as “Meet, greet, and eat” sessions to coincide with visits to IIASA by prominent researchers and other professionals from IIASA and elsewhere who want to share their experiences.

“I’ve found that more experienced and senior women who may have been the only women in their departments at the start of their careers or may have had to fight for a seat at the table are often the quickest to agree to meet with WISC. This shows me that they see the value in a club like ours,” Palazzo adds.

Although the number of women now engaged in science is the highest it has ever been, there are still too few women in positions of leadership. According to Palazzo, at IIASA, this situation is set to change with the institute’s newly appointed Deputy Director General for Science who joined IIASA in November this year.

“I’m excited that Leena Srivastava has joined us and I hope that this is just the start of many changes at IIASA that will bring more women into positions of leadership,” she says.

Palazzo says that the most valuable thing that she has learned so far is that no two women have the same story or path to success.

“I found it reassuring to hear successful women tell us that when they were starting out or even several years into their careers they also didn’t know exactly what contribution they wanted to make. They were learning as they went along. It has also been useful to hear women talk about building resilience to negative comments or behaviors and recognize that these behaviors reflect the other person’s fear and insecurity. In the end, the Women in Science Club is a place to share, contribute, listen, and learn. We want women connected to science to feel that they are a member of our community, that they have a seat at our table, and that they belong here,” she concludes.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Understanding climate change as an everything issue

Award-winning climate communicator Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist, professor of political science at Texas Tech University, and director of the Climate Center, discusses the importance of effective science communication in overcoming barriers to public acceptance of climate change in a recent interview with Rachel Potter, IIASA communications officer.

© Chris.Soldt | Boston College.MTS.Photography

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your specific areas of research as a scientist? 

I study what climate change means to people, in the places where we live: how it is affecting our water supply, our health, our air quality, the integrity of our infrastructure, and other human and natural systems. Often when people think about climate change they think about polar bears or people who are living on low-lying islands in the South Pacific. I bring climate change down from the global scale to the local level because when we understand that it is an ‘everything issue’, that’s when we understand that we need to act.

Q: You have been widely recognized as a remarkable communicator. What do you see as key to effective science communication?

I believe effective communication begins with connecting and identifying shared values, and ends with talking about solutions. With climate change, sometimes people are overt in their opposition by outright saying the science isn’t real. More often however, it is passive opposition where people feel the problem is too big and there is nothing they can do to fix it. We need to present people with solutions that are practical and viable – in other words, actions that they can engage in.

Q: Why is science communication important?

Science communication explains how the world works. Today we are conducting an unprecedented experiment with our planet, the only one we have. Understanding this is one of the most important things anyone can do as a human being living on Earth.

Q: Can you briefly outline what you see as trends in public and political opinion with regard to human-induced climate change?

Our world is becoming increasingly polarized and we are dividing into tribes. It is happening with many issues and in many places around the world. When the world is changing so quickly, many of us feel uncomfortable with the rate of change, so we retreat to a more tribalized, divided society where we feel comfortable. But by doing so, we focus on the tiny fraction of what divides us rather than the vast preponderance of what unites us, because it makes us feel more secure to do so.

Climate change is a casualty of this fracturing, tribalism, and polarization that is happening – most notably in the US because there are only two political parties, so the tribalization there is much more obvious. In the US, the best predictor of whether people agree with the facts that: climate is changing, humans are responsible, and the impacts are serious, is not how much they know about science, it’s simply where they fall on the political spectrum. This politicization of science is also happening in the UK, Austria, across Europe, Canada, Australia, and Brazil.

© IIASA Katherine Hayhoe with members of the IIASA Women in Science Club

Q: How can this polarization and the barriers to dealing with climate change be challenged?

Climate change is a human issue – it doesn’t care if we are liberal or conservative, rich or poor, although the poor are being more affected than the rich. It affects all of us and almost everything we care about. For that reason, we must emphasize what unites us rather than what divides us. We need to challenge the idea that the solutions to climate change pose a bigger threat to our wellbeing, our comfort, the quality of our lives, our identity and who we are, than the impacts.

We must expose the myths that underlie inaction around climate change and examine them in an objective way. Will it really ruin our economy to fix climate change? Will it take us back to the Stone Age? If we don’t tackle the myths directly, they will continue to thrive in our sub-conscious. For example, in Canada there is an idea that a carbon tax will destroy the economy. I like to point out that there were four provinces in Canada that had a price on carbon before it became a federal policy, and those four provinces have led the country in terms of economic growth and output.

Q: What part do you see IIASA playing in being able to build bridges between countries across political divides? 

IIASA stands in a key position at a pivotal time. It is a truly international organization in terms of its mandate, structure, governance, and the people that work here. Climate change is a global problem and IIASA is a global institution that can offer both big-picture and regionally-specific insights into climate impacts and solutions.

Katharine Hayhoe visited IIASA on 4 October 2019 to give a lecture titled, Barriers to Public Acceptance of Climate Science, Impacts, and Solutions, to IIASA researchers and to meet with the IIASA Women in Science Club. IIASA has a worldwide network of collaborators who contribute to research by collecting, processing, and evaluating local and regional data that are integrated into IIASA models. The institute has 819 research partner institutions in member countries and works with research funders, academic institutions, policymakers, and individual researchers in national member organizations.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis