The global economy has slowed significantly after numerous countries have enacted measures to address the COVID-19 pandemic. The social and human impacts have been nothing short of devastating, and the economic pain is unlikely to let up anytime soon.
There have also been some notable changes in the natural environment, including a noticeable drop in urban air pollution. Emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) have also declined, though it is unclear by how much and for how long (recent guestimates suggest emissions are unlikely to decline by more than 5% this year). There are too many variables at play to foresee the long term impacts of the pandemic on the climate system. Nevertheless, here are three takeaways at the interface of the pandemic, the economy, and climate change:
1) The pandemic is not “good” for the climate.
Here’s a sobering thought exercise: imagine that as a result of the pandemic and the economic downturn, global GHG emissions from fossil fuels decline by a whopping 25% this year compared to last – what would this mean for global warming? Unfortunately, not much – all it would mean is that in 2020 humanity adds roughly 28 Gigatons (Gt) of CO2 to the atmosphere instead of the roughly 37 Gt emitted last year! The global atmospheric concentration of CO2 this year would still be higher (in annual average terms) than any year since the Industrial Revolution. Due to the way CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere, the only viable means of stabilizing global temperatures is to cut CO2 emissions to zero (and we’ll even have to deploy carbon sequestration technologies to take additional CO2 out of the atmosphere on top of that). Metaphorically speaking, instead of adding 37 gallons of fuel to our house fire, we’d only add 28 gallons.
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Sure, a decline in fossil fuel burning – taken on its own – is technically ‘better’ for the climate than business-as-usual. And, theoretically, 2020 could mark the beginning of a new era of transition away from fossil fuels. However, we may end up seeing some ‘positive feedbacks’ from efforts to manage the pandemic. To give two examples: If the medical system’s voracious need for disposable plastic supplies and other equipment currently in short supply helps kickstart a wartime-like manufacturing spree; or if reduced prices for fossil fuel commodities are seen as an opportunity to save on electricity production; then emissions reductions would be partly offset by increases in other areas. In short, it does not make sense to say the pandemic is ‘good’ for the climate, nor that the ‘planet is healing,’ as many seem to be suggesting on social media. In the long run, it’s entirely possible the economic fallout could hamper progress on green innovation and the adoption of climate-smart technologies if financial losses cause investment to dry up (more on that below).
2) Social distancing is not a model for effective climate policy.
What horror would it be if the lesson here was the best thing you could do for the climate is “stay home; do nothing; don’t socialize; don’t go out; forget transportation”! That is the opposite of good climate policy! We should be re-thinking how we power our societies, how we produce goods, and how we get around, so that these things can be done sustainably. We have the technologies and continue to add innovations which can feasibly allow us to do all of these necessary things in ways which do not contribute to climate change . The trick of climate policy is to figure out how to get what we need – and that includes in-the-flesh social interaction – without adding to the world’s carbon debt.
That said, a return to “normal life” doesn’t mean we can’t slow down a little bit. This need not be about ‘sacrificing’ the good things in life, but rather about appreciating what it is in life that is truly good! The pandemic and the economic downturn have painfully reminded us of some of the things that really matter – our loved ones, our health; our positive relationships with others; our fulfilling occupations and meaningful pastimes. It is possible to have those things in a world that is not so frenetically-paced. Excess material consumption is not necessary for us to achieve happiness. Globalization itself is not going to disappear – but the social relations which accompany interdependent trade, commerce and financial ties might just have to shift to accommodate a new post-pandemic consciousness.
3) The time for aggressive climate stimulus is… very soon.
There has long been a mantra in climate policy circles that the time for climate action is now but given the unprecedented nature of this pandemic and the financial pain it has caused, the time for aggressive climate stimulus is perhaps not quite now, but very soon. Governments are using their economic powers to prevent socio-economic collapse. This does not mean we ought to let up on GHG emissions standards or waive regulations for high-polluting industries, nor does it mean we should bail out the oil sector! Instead, the focus of current government spending should be to ensure people have food, shelter, and access to medical care – especially those whose incomes have suddenly vanished and other vulnerable populations.
It is the next round of economic stimulus – the one that is bound to come once the pandemic is ending – that we dedicate towards support climate-smart investments. This is more a lesson we learned after the last global recession in 2009 when ideas around a ‘Green New Deal’ first started to gain traction. Unfortunately, the stimulus packages released post-2008 were not especially green. As a result GHG emissions grew by over 5% in the year after the crisis (the most significant annual percentage increase seen over the last three decades at the very least). We must avoid past mistakes.
We will undoubtedly learn other lessons about the pandemic and its relationships with the economy and climate. It seems only a matter of time before we start to see just how all this has impacted our vulnerability to climate risks (how will forest wildfire fighters practice social distancing, I wonder?). For now, let’s focus on keeping our fellow citizens alive, and our societies afloat, so that we have something worth protecting from climate change.