The current global situation with Covid-19 has seen a global reduction in carbon emissions since the outbreak. While this by no means makes up for the suffering and fear the virus has caused, it is a small silver lining.
Previously we reported that China’s CO2 emissions had fallen and it was confirmed by the Carbon Brief website that measures taken by China to contain the coronavirus resulted in reductions of 15 to 40% in output across key industrial sectors.
Jonathan Watts, The Guardian’s global environment editor reports that: “If this trend continues, analysts say it is possible this will lead to the first fall in global emissions since the 2008-09 financial crisis.”
“The study shows that actions taken by authorities have inadvertently demonstrated that a hefty 25% carbon dioxide cuts can bring less traffic and cleaner air with only a small reduction in economic growth.”
As a result of self-isolation across the world, millions of people are avoiding their usual commutes, school runs and shopping trips. Global air traffic decreased by 4.3% in February, even before countries started imposing travel bans for travellers from Europe and other ‘high-risk’ countries.
While there will, without a doubt, be economic disruption to energy investments across the year, it is also possible that the current situation could inspire long-term behavioural changes.
“If the lesson learned is, let’s get back to the status quo… [the virus] probably will slow down the energy transition,” author and founder of climate advocacy group 350.org Bill McKibben told CNBC. “If the lesson learned is, you have to take the physical world and its risks seriously, it could make governments more likely to move fast.”
But, will it last?
McKibben has warned, however, that there is already evidence the Chinese government is planning to respond to the economic slowdown with a huge infrastructure stimulus package. Already there are reports that seven Chinese provinces have published lists of proposed investment projects with a value of approximately $3.5 trillion.
There is evidence that the last time a similar package was used, the $586-billion boost saw a significant jump in Chinese emissions following the downturn.
Longer-term solutions needed
Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist at Stanford University, cautioned that short term drops in emissions shouldn’t be considered as a long term solution. He, instead, advocates systematic change and real solutions to climate change.
“We don’t want a Great Depression to be the reason for our carbon emissions drop. We want efficient and renewable energy to be the reasons so that we can continue to thrive economically,” he said.
“People see and people then saw a direct link between action and human survival. So coronavirus and the ozone hole motivate people in ways that the more abstract threats of climate change don’t.”
The pandemic is also intrinsically linked with environmental issues, Bowman said.
Interestingly enough, Kerry Bowman, a bioethics and global health professor at the University of Toronto believes there is a clear correlation forming between countries that have had significant surges in COVID-19 cases and poor air quality.
“It’s not that the air quality changes the nature of the virus, but it absolutely may affect people’s vulnerability to the virus [and] when they pick it up, how their body responds to it.”
Speaking to CBC Canada, McKibben said there is a chance this “weird and difficult moment in human history” will teach people to pay attention to scientists and take their concerns seriously.
“What they tell you isn’t convenient. They’re telling you this for a reason because they know what they’re talking about, in just the same way they say, ‘Look, you can’t keep pouring carbon into the atmosphere.'”
“There’s no way, despite the best efforts of President Trump, to spin a microbe or to persuade a virus to compromise, anymore than there is to politicize a CO2 molecule. So maybe this will remind us to respect the physical nature of the world and the limits that it imposes.”