Amongst the endless cavalcade of bad news dominating the headlines as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, it is only natural that we cling to whatever rays of hope we can find. And that good news has arrived in the form of a series of positive stories showing nature’s renewal in the absence of throngs of tourists or our usual carbon-heavy lifestyles: the canals of Venice run clear and teem with life (though sadly not dolphins, that story has been thoroughly debunked); bears have returned to areas of Yosemite Valley they usually stay clear of due to high numbers of tourists;and residents of northern Indian cities whose skies are normally blanketed in smog could suddenly see the majestic Himalayas from the windows of their homes.
However, although these stories are undoubtedly good news, it would be wrong to assume that this pandemic will help us avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming. Although some experts have predicted that 2020 could see a fall in global carbon emissions of 5% – the biggest reduction in recorded history – it would be naïve to see this as evidence of a long term trend or a sign of what is to come.
It is important to note throughout this article that the environment and the climate, though linked, are not the same thing. Improvements in air quality and wildlife returning to areas now devoid of humans as a consequences fo reduced industrial and economic activity are signs that there have been environmental benefits as a side effect of this pandemic. However, improvements in air quality does not directly affect the climate, although it can be another effect of reductions in industrial emissions.
In order to examine the impact of COVID-19 on global emissions, we need to know which activities produce the most greenhouse gases, and how they have been affected by the pandemic. Since the pandemic is currently ongoing, it may be some time until we see accurate data about the impact of the lockdown. But looking at previous global crises, it is likely that global emissions could increase and that the planet will continue to warm.
Globally, transportation makes up 23% of all carbon emissions, with vehicular transport and aviation contributing a respective 72% and 11% to that figure. The imposition of travel restrictions, with eight out of ten flights grounded and packed roads emptying out has led to significant reductions in NO2 emissions in affected counties including Italy, India and China. However, these reductions appear to be short lived. Although China had its carbon emissions reduced by 25% in the first four months of 2020, observers believe the trend will not last, as this article will explore.
One immediate consequence of this pandemic is that it has taken over the agenda of governments around the world. Time that could have been spent pursuing targeted reductions in emissions is now spend trying to contain the spread of the virus and the economic fallout. The most important climate summit since the 2015 Paris Climate Accords – Cop26 – has been postponed by a year, losing us valuable time to combat the climate emergency while we are on track to experience at least 3C of global heating.
Conservation efforts have also been adversely affected. Ecotourism has collapsed, both reducing funds available for conservation industries and hitting the economies of local communities. This has left endangered species more vulnerable, as poachers are able to exploit protected areas and local communities – stripped of their source of income – may be forced into illegal hunting and trading of endangered species. It’s a cruel irony that the same illegal wildlife trade which caused this pandemic may benefit from the chaos.
The economic ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic could also spell bad news for the fight against climate change. While 2008 Financial Crisis did cause a decrease in CO2 emissions of 0.29 billion tonnes in the year 2008-09, the increase in emissions from 2009-10 was greater than that of the year 2007-08 (1.58 and 1.00 billion tonnes respectively).
This is a consequence of the numerous stimulus packages implemented by governments to kick-start their countries’ ailing economies. In China, this was centred around rebuilding infrastructure. One of the sectors which benefited the most from this effort was the construction industry, which in turn benefited the concrete industry – one of the most destructive industries on earth. If the global concrete and cement industry was a country, it would be the third largest emitter or CO2 in the world. An analysis by WWF found that the Chinese stimulus package increased the country’s CO2 emissions beyond what was expected by pre-2008 predictions.
The same report also examined the provisions that China, The United States, Germany, South Korea and Brazil made within their stimulus packages to reduce emissions. If we are going to avoid a repeat of 2008, or even worse considering the projected impact of the COVID-19 financial crisis, then any measures to restart the economy will need to prioritise sustainable reductions in emissions.
There are some potential sources of hope in this “new normal”. After many businesses have been forced to work remotely, an increasing prevalence of working from home may be a legacy of the pandemic way of life, bringing with it a reduction in emissions from commuting. Furthermore, the side effects of lockdown which have proved beneficial to the environment and human health such such as improving the air quality in major cities may influence people to vote for politicians who have put sustainability and combatting climate change at the heart of their legislative agendas.
But if the response to COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is that governments are capable of moving quickly to respond to a crisis. It has demolished the argument that says it is “too difficult” to implement the necessary changes to combat the climate emergency. It has proved that we have the means, now all we need is the will from the right people to do the right thing before it is too late.
Time is running out.