By Olivia Oldham
As the world grinds to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it's easy to think that this has to be a good thing for the climate. And certainly, there are plenty of positive consequences of the virus for the environment.
There's the dramatic impact that this is having on the air-travel industry (a 4.3% decline in global air travel in February), and travel more generally as people around the world are encouraged (or required by law) to stay home. Plus, the strong coupling of economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions means that a global slow-down of the economy could lead to a fall in emissions. In China, the lockdown over recent weeks has led to a 25% reduction in energy use and emissions over two weeks compared to previous years.
But unfortunately the news isn't all positive. The disruptions caused by the virus aren't discriminating based on the climate. So while the tumbling price of oil (which has fallen by about 25% this month, the largest drop in nearly 30 years!) might mean the end for a number of smaller oil companies, even this might have negative environmental consequences, if the bankrupted companies walk away from their oil wells, leaving them unplugged and leaking methane, all while relying on the state to pay for clean-up.
And while short-term declines in emissions are positive, they won't mean much for the climate unless they lead to broader, long-term changes to the way society operates. Could remote working, teleconferences and avoiding air travel become the new normal?
A number of negative climate-related impacts are or may come about as a result of coronavirus and it’s widespread, long-lasting impacts on global society.
The market for renewables
The falling share-market and crashing global economy are not only affecting GHG-intensive industries, they are also impacting the market for renewables. Factories in China which produce critical components of wind turbines and solar panels have shut down production due to the virus. A new report issued Friday 13 March dialled back its prediction for the growth of global solar energy capacity this year from 121-152 gigawatts to only 108-143 gigawatts, which (if it plays out) will be the first dip in solar capacity additions globally since the 1980s.
Interfering with research
Coronavirus is interfering with critical climate research. To give just one example, three NASA science campaigns which were meant to take place in the United States this spring have had to reschedule their data collection flights until later in the year, or in one case possibly for several years. These missions were meant to have collected data related to climate, and the dynamics and impacts of climate change.
Delaying legislation and regulation
In the United States, a climate action framework, which a bipartisan group in the House of Representatives had been working on for a year, was due to be released at the end of March. Instead, the release will be pushed back due to COVID-19. Meanwhile, the German government used a meeting which had been intended to deal with issues around renewable energy in the country to discuss the COVID-19 outbreak instead. There is also growing concern that COP26 in Glasgow will be derailed by the outbreak.
Before we start rejoicing at the fall in emissions due to the COVID-related economic slow-down, and the shut-down of high-emitting industries, we should remember that these processes have a huge impact on peoples' lives. As Gernot Wagner, a clinical associate professor at the Department of Environmental Studies at New York University points out, the drop in emissions in China are coming about because of a situation in which people are dying. And while the end of fossil fuel extraction is our goal, do we really want that to happen in a way that means hundreds of thousands of workers in the fossil fuel industry (and industries totally reliant upon fossil fuels, such as the airline industry) are left unemployed, with no social or economic support, and no alternative employment?
Should we be celebrating and encouraging an image of a net-zero carbon world that more or less requires the widespread disruption of society through lock-downs, death, loss of livelihoods, exacerbation of food insecurity and inequality, and protracted separations from loved ones? Should we promote a path to net-zero which comes at the expense of all those who are most vulnerable in our societies—the elderly, those with pre-existing health conditions, those in economically precarious situations, the homeless? It seems counterproductive to give those individuals and institutions who are already unwilling to make large-scale social and economic changes to address climate change yet another reason to drag their feet.
While there might be some lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic about how quickly governments really can respond to a crisis when they recognise it as one, what this situation really demonstrates is the importance of dealing with climate change in a way which fundamentally promotes social justice and the protection of vulnerable members of society.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.