Coronavirus shows the enormous scale of the climate crisis


The world is in the grip of two crises. The first, the coronavirus pandemic, was completely unknown to us just four months ago but has already warped our lives beyond all recognition. Next to the perilous urgency of coronavirus, the second great crisis, the climate crisis, may currently feel more distant than at any other point in the last decade. The devastating Australian bushfires were still burning when coronavirus started spreading in central China but already those events seemed consigned to a different era.

There are moments when these simultaneous crises bring each other into sharp relief. In Delhi, Bangkok and São Paulo residents expressed disbelief at the unusually clean air in cities usually choked with pollution. New research from Italy, Spain, France and Germany also suggests that air pollution may be a contributor to Covid-19 deaths. As leading public health experts have long warned, the climate crisis is also a public health crisis.

While the coronavirus pandemic is giving us a glimpse of what life would look like with less air pollution, it’s also shedding more light on the scale of the climate crisis we all face. And though there are precious few certainties in the world right now, one thing is becoming clear: how we respond to the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis will have a huge impact on our ability to tackle the other great crisis of our lifetimes.

The coronavirus pandemic has grounded almost all flights, shut down offices and forced cars from the road. This will likely put a serious dent into the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in 2020. One estimate from Carbon Brief puts the potential drop of CO2 emissions at 5.5 per cent compared with 2019. In the US, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that the country’s emissions are set to drop by 7.5 per cent. Rob Jackson, chair of the Global Carbon Project told Reuters that he wouldn’t be surprised to see a drop of five per cent or more globally in 2020.

Whatever the precise figure, it’s likely that the coronavirus pandemic will trigger the largest ever yearly drop in CO2 emissions. The dips caused by the Second War War, the financial crisis or the Spanish Flu don’t even come close. But this reduction in emissions is still way off what we’d need to prevent 1.5 degrees Celsius of global heating. To hit this, as Carbon Brief notes, global emissions would need to fall by 7.6 per cent every year this decade.

Even if coronavirus does cause a dip of this level for a single year, we know from past crises that emissions tend to rebound once the crisis is over. As Glen Peters at the Center for International Climate and Environment Research in Oslo notes, every single emissions dip since the 1960s – the two oil crises, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Asian financial crisis in the mid 1990s and the 2008 financial crash – was followed by a period of growing emissions. In the wake of the 2008 financial crash, a raft of stimulus packages prompted a 5.1 per cent rebound in global emissions in 2010, far above the long-term average. In the US, the EIA estimates that emissions will increase by 3.6 per cent in 2021.

But even in the short term, the current dips in emissions aren’t necessarily a source of optimism. Yes, they have shown that dramatic changes in our behaviour can cause a significant dip in emissions, but at what cost? In America, protestors (and the president) are putting public health at risk to rile against the lockdown. Across Europe and beyond, countries are itching to ease their own restrictions on movement. No one is credibly suggesting that lockdown-like conditions are a possible way out of the climate crisis.

And while our behaviour has changed hugely during the coronavirus crisis, perhaps more pertinent is what has stayed the same. “We’re still generating electricity in the same way, we’re still heating our homes in the same way and we’re still driving cars that take the same petrol and diesel that they always have done,” says Piers Forster, director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds and a member of the UK Committee on Climate Change. “[The coronavirus crisis] tells us we need to do far more than just change our behaviour.”

The current crisis may leave us with some long-term shifts in behaviour that benefit the environment. The ease with which many of us have adapted to lifestyles of home working and Zoom calls makes a world with more flexible working and fewer business flights not so hard to imagine. But this really amounts to fiddling around the edges of the climate crisis.

“To get the huge reductions in emissions that we want we need far more systematic things going on,” says Forster. “When you offer jobs to people and you invest in industries it needs to be those industries of tomorrow.” In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the rush to get the economy functioning again led to a spike in emissions from fossil fuel firms and the cement industry.

The recovery from coronavirus will require a huge drive to get people into secure, long-term employment. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, a three-month-long lockdown could see an unemployment rise to ten per cent in the UK. In one week in mid-April, 5.24 million Americans filed for unemployment, bringing the total claims since March 14 to 22.2 million.

If the world is going to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic in a state fit to fight the climate crisis, it must steer its recovery towards sustainable industries – those working in home insulation, renewable energy and electric vehicles. The answers to the climate crisis are the same as those before the pandemic swept the world, but we have a new opportunity to refocus our energies towards a shared goal; kick-starting the economy and pushing us towards net zero by 2020.

We might also take some encouragement from the way that ordinary people have responded to the pandemic, says Andrew Challinor, a professor of climate impacts at the University of Leeds. “This really demonstrates that we really have a capacity in this society to [come together],” he says. “How can we use that goodwill alongside the climate agenda? How do we bring those two things together?”

Coronavirus has also taught us a thing or two about clear messaging. Despite some early missteps, there are few that haven’t been reached by the government’s core message: stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives. The messaging is so simple that it has already inspired a new generation of curtain-twitching vigilantes.

Such laser-focussed messaging could help prompt people to take the climate crisis more seriously and point them towards behavioural changes they can make to lessen their own impact.“Look how clear our lines of communication can be when there’s a sharp sense of urgency,” says Challinor.

And it is this urgency that will become crucial when the world begins its recovery from the current pandemic. As we have seen from the varying degrees that countries have suffered with their own Covid-19 outbreaks, countries hit previously with outbreaks of Sars and Mers were among the quickest to get their own outbreaks under control. The world has already seen enough examples of the devastating impact of climate change to learn this lesson many times over. The next year or two will prove whether we were truly paying attention.

Matt Reynolds is WIRED’s science editor. He tweets from @mattsreynolds1

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