An unexpected event leading to long term change on emissions?

By Georgina Laird, Ethics and Impact Manager

28 May 2020.

We are currently, and correctly, enveloped in the first order medical and economic impacts of this current pandemic. The only certainty we have is that nothing is certain. COVID-19 will continue to have significant impact on our lives for the foreseeable future. We salute the medical staff and essential workers who are the heroes at the frontline of this viral battle.

But could the natural world and climate actually benefit from the pandemic? By the end of March 2020, over 100 countries worldwide had implemented either partial or full lockdown. With industrial activity shutting down, and global travel almost coming to a halt, we’ve seen a significant interruption to emissions and air pollution.

Emissions slashed
The immediate effects can be seen in images released from NASA - a marked reduction in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels (an air pollutant formed when fossil fuels burn at high levels) over China whilst the country was in lockdown.

Changes in emissions in China’s industrial heartland.Source: The Earth Observatory

Twitter posts reveal images people never thought they would witness - eerily empty cities bathed in blue skies, canals running clear in Venice due to lowered boat traffic and rare giant turtles returning to Thailand’s deserted beaches.

Revenge Pollution
Whilst the environment is receiving some much-needed respite, it is in no way a sustainable road to reducing emissions.

Historical data tells us that global crisis’ which cause a drop in emissions are often proceeded by a bounce- back, an effect termed ‘revenge pollution’. The aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis saw a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 1.4%.¹ In 2010, as the global economy attempted to recover, emissions shot up by 5.9%. Indeed we can see emissions in China beginning to rebound to pre-COVID19 levels as the country works to restart its economy.

As a consequence of lockdowns, we are currently witnessing an estimated global drop in CO2 emissions of between 5 and 7%. In order to achieve the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, the UN Environment Gap Report states that we need to deliver a 7.6% emissions reduction every year between 2020 and 2030.

This puts in to context the scale of action necessary to meet the Paris goals.

Never waste a crisis

The corona crisis arrived just as the climate movement appeared to be gathering momentum – the bushfires in Australia had galvanised the public to lobby for climate change, Greta Thunberg became a household name, and central bankers began to talk about “climate stress tests” and “green quantitative easing”.

The short-term reactions to the current pandemic have been significant – humans typically react quickly to a crisis. But what of the long-term view? Perhaps the ‘silver- lining’ will be what we can learn. COVID-19 has shown us that change can happen, and it can happen quickly when the necessity is there.

Andy Casely, Senior Catastrophe Risk Analyst at Willis Towers Watson (a global advisory, broking, and solutions company), contemplates. “There are a lot of potential learning moments here for human society. COVID-19 has shown the world what can happen should it not take action on the non-linear increase of a damaging agent.”

We’re witnessing first hand collective action making change for the good. Hopefully we can capture the momentum and translate it into long-term system change.


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