In the first five months of 2020, the world witnessed a drastic change in the way we move, consume, and live our everyday lives. With lockdown or stay-at-home orders in many countries restricting movement, vehicle and airline traffic has dropped significantly, once-busy highways and airports now almost empty. In fact, according to the World Metrological Organization, carbon emissions have dropped nearly 6% compared to the same timeframe in previous years. For some, this represents a rare bright light in the age of coronavirus, a moment in which a combination of lifestyle changes and renewed international cooperation to defeat the virus will finally lead to significant progress in the fight against climate change. However, coronavirus’s impact on climate change is in fact much more complicated, with both positive and negative aspects – and much of it determines on the decisions we will make in the next few years after the current pandemic has subsided.
The Good News
First off, the positive: since early 2020, the world has seen perhaps the largest decline in CO2 emissions in decades, after years of escalating warming temperatures since the mid-20th century. Even in 2008, during the height of the Global Recession, CO2 emissions only declined by around 1.4% – a fraction of the current drop. In part, this is due to reductions in air and land travel as international borders are shut and stay-at-home orders largely followed. In China alone, carbon emissions have dropped by an astonishing 25%, equivalent to 200 million tons of carbon dioxide – or around half the annual emissions of the United Kingdom. Worldwide, estimates are that for the first part of 2019, global carbon emissions dropped by almost 17%.
As the world rebounds from the coronavirus – with many scientists estimating “normal life” to fully resume only after a vaccine is distributed, currently believed to be around spring 2021 – many of the lifestyle changes people have adopted may, in fact, have lasting impacts on the climate crises. While air travel is unlikely to be curbed completely, a new emphasis on working at home may help reduce business air miles, while cities – newly enjoying fresh air unseen for decades – could find new incentive to keep their cities pollution-free by encouraging commuting by train, bike, or public transportation and setting strict limits on vehicle traffic.
The Not-So-Good News
Yet although beneficial, these lifestyle changes, unfortunately, won’t solve climate change alone – and several national responses to the coronavirus pandemic may, in fact, make global warming worse.
Take, for instance, the 25% carbon reduction in China. Although transportation makes a large impact on global carbon emissions, these pale to the impact of industrial manufacturing from manufacturing economies such as China. As the pandemic resides and China’s economy rebounds, it’s likely that these industrial factories will re-open and begin producing at an even higher rate in order to jump-start economic recovery. A precedent for this can be seen in the 2008 carbon emissions “dip”, which in 2009 roared back along with the economy to a 5.9% increase. This isn’t just relegated to China: from European states like the Czech Republic and Poland to the United States, economic recovery plans have been proposed that would cut existing environmental regulations, meaning more rather than fewer emissions following the pandemic.
Even considering the current emissions drop, 2020 is still expected to be the hottest year on record as continued carbon output and the impact of increased CO2 levels already in our atmosphere resulting in an increasingly warmer climate. Why? A simple fact to remember is that a short-term reduction in global climate emissions does not directly relate to a decrease in global atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The carbon cycle is complex, and as scientists have been telling us, it can take decades for changes in our behavior to cause a measurable change in the upward creep of atmospheric CO2 concentrations.
The Next Steps
The impact of coronavirus on climate change, therefore, shows what climate activists, scientists, and responsible governments have said for years: that averting a climate catastrophe relies on more than the responsible actions of individuals – such as recycling, eating less meat, using public transportation when possible and other methods that lower your carbon footprint – but on the dramatic rethinking of how national and global economies function in a warming world.
Unless the coronavirus pandemic results in a massive global shift towards renewable energy sources and a reduced carbon footprint by carbon-heavy industries in manufacturing, transportation, and agriculture, the current drop will likely be merely a footnote in the ongoing story of runaway greenhouse gas emissions. But there is hope: global cooperation born from a need to collectively fight the virus may jump-start collective action in climate change, especially if citizens across the world call their governments to action. If we can do so, the prediction made by Glen Paters of the Center for International Climate Research that 2020 will “be the year that global emissions peak” might not, in fact, be so far-fetched after all.
- How Coronavirus Impacts Climate Change (Bloomberg)
- Global Energy Review 2020 (International Energy Agency)
- Global carbon emissions dropped an unprecedented 17% during the coronavirus lockdown — and it changes nothing (LiveScience)
- April 2020: Earth’s 2nd Warmest April on Record
article by Devin Windelspecht
- Climate graphs: NOAA