8 reads on how coronavirus could swing the battle against climate change

Pandemic causes temporary emissions drop, but long-term effects unclear

A 3D print of a SARS-CoV-2 virus particle, which causes COVID-19. NIH/NIAID
18 March 2020
18 March 2020

As entire countries go on lockdown, factories close and international air travel grinds to a halt, the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic will likely result in a sharp drop in global carbon emissions – as has already happened in China. While this decrease will almost certainly be temporary, it’s worth asking whether the world’s drastic coronavirus response could provide valuable lessons for climate action. Could a low-carbon future of remote working and reduced flying be in the works?

Here’s a mini-roundup of news coverage so far, examining the linkages between coronavirus and climate change.

‘Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?

The Guardian (18 March, Read time: 20 minutes)

A flashback, for context: Biologists have known for years that more than half of the diseases that infect humans come from animals. By disrupting the natural world, humans increase their own risk of epidemics.

“Increasingly, these zoonotic diseases are linked to environmental change and human behaviour. The disruption of pristine forests driven by logging, mining, road building through remote places, rapid urbanisation and population growth is bringing people into closer contact with animal species they may never have been near before.”

Climate Change Has Lessons for Fighting the Coronavirus

The New York Times (12 March, 15 minutes)

Procrastination, short-termism and scientific denial are the hallmarks of our inaction on climate change – but the coronavirus provides an opportunity for us to kick those long-standing habits.

“Will the effort to revive the global economy after the pandemic accelerate the emissions of planet-warming gases, rather than avert climate change? That depends on whether the world’s big economies, like China and the United States, use this moment to enact green growth policies or continue to prop up fossil fuel industries.”

Shelves empty in Hong Kong. Studio Incendo, Flickr
Shelves empty in Hong Kong. Studio Incendo, Flickr

There’s an unlikely beneficiary of coronavirus: The planet

CNN (17 March, 10 minutes)

In China and Hong Kong, carbon emissions and air pollution levels fell dramatically as roads emptied and heavy industry was brought to a standstill.

“From February 3 to March 1, CO2 emissions were down by at least 25% because of the measures to contain the coronavirus. As the world’s biggest polluter, China contributes 30% of the world’s CO2 emissions annually, so the impact of this kind of drop is huge, even over a short period.”

Air pollution likely to increase coronavirus death rate, warn experts

The Guardian (17 March, 4 minutes)

In fact, China’s lockdown might have prevented more than 50,000 deaths from air pollution alone – compared to 3,241 from the coronavirus itself to date. That’s crucial, because those exposed to high air pollution levels are also more likely to die of the virus.

“Dirty air is known to cause lung and heart damage and is responsible for at least 8m early deaths a year. This underlying health damage means respiratory infections, such as coronavirus, may well have a more serious impact on city dwellers and those exposed to toxic fumes, than on others.”

Graffiti serves as a public health announcement in Dublin, Ireland. William Murphy, Flickr
Graffiti serves as a public health announcement in Dublin, Ireland. William Murphy, Flickr

Coronavirus could weaken climate change action and hit clean energy investment, researchers warn

CNBC (13 March, 4 minutes)

But as a coronavirus-induced global recession looks ever more likely, the International Energy Agency warns that clean energy investments and emissions reductions could fall to the wayside.

“The coronavirus pandemic has stoked concerns of a global economic recession as it spreads across the world. While the crisis has led to a temporary decline in global carbon dioxide emissions, experts are warning it poses a serious threat to long-term climate change action by compromising global investments in clean energy and weakening industry environmental goals to reduce emissions.”

How Coronavirus Could Set Back the Fight Against Climate Change

Time (10 March, 4 minutes)

Globally, while this year was set to be a major year for countries increasing commitments to reducing emissions and advancing sustainability measures, the coronavirus is seeing necessary meetings, conferences and platforms for high-level conversation on the matter canceled and postponed. It might likely also mandate countries to redirect their attention and funds elsewhere.

“The cancellation of meetings may sound dull, but it has the potential to totally derail climate talks at a delicate time… Bold climate plans require spending political capital, and world leaders are likely to want to use their political energy to boost the economy in response to coronavirus.”

Face masks are worn as protection in a subway station in New York City. susanjanegolding, Flickr
Face masks are worn as protection in a subway station in New York City. susanjanegolding, Flickr

Coronavirus has emptied flights. It could end up changing flying for ever

The Guardian (15 March, 8 minutes)

With passenger numbers dropping to near zero, most of the world’s airlines could be bankrupt by the end of May. It’s an opportune moment to reconsider our dependency on flying.

“The appetite for travel may be an ancient human urge, but global hypermobility is only a couple of decades old. Action on climate change may have restricted aviation; higher fares from reduced competition might yet do more. Now, societies forced to do without flying may also start to question whether the habit was worth it.”

Eight Emerging Lessons: From Coronavirus to Climate Action

Medium (16 March, 18 minutes)

Moving forward, the lifestyle disruption and behavioral changes adopted by many to “flatten the curve” can – and should – lead to a reimagining of how society works, from human interaction to political and economic infrastructure.

“Many of us feel that we live in a time of profound change — change not only in terms of things ending, but also in terms of seeding and cultivating and growing a new civilization for the decades and centuries to come.”

The empty streets of Milan during a period of lockdown. Alberto Trentanni, Flickr
The empty streets of Milan during a period of lockdown. Alberto Trentanni, Flickr

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