What COVID-19 Means for the Environment

Amid coronavirus lockdowns, striking photos and headlines have taken viewers across the globe to seemingly renewed environments. In Italy, canals that were previously cloudy from boat traffic are now running clear. In India, a drop in air pollution has made the Himalayas visible for the first time in years. And cities around the globe have experienced cleaner air as CO2 emissions drop amid stay-at-home orders.

While the crisis continues to wreak havoc on health care systems and unemployment offices globally, news of clear skies and recovering wildlife has given many hope that this virus could prevent a climate catastrophe down the road. But, according to climate scientists, these temporary changes won’t deter the damage already done.

Make sure to check of the end of this article for the meaningful shifts that may help prevent a climate crisis.

Bouncing Back After a Crisis

China’s carbon emissions decreased by about 25% over a two week period in the height of the pandemic. Other countries have also recorded a decrease in carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide levels as industrial activities halt and commutes are cancelled amid lockdowns. But will these changes last?

As a result of the recession in the late 2000s, carbon emissions fell by 10% between 2007 and 2009. But in 2010, they reached an all time high due to increased emissions in developing countries, return to industrial activities in developed countries, and an increase in fossil fuel intensity following the financial crisis.

22 million people are unemployed and thousands of businesses are under threat due to COVID-19. Stimulating the economy in the next few months and years may create a similar situation to the end of the financial crisis by spiking investments in energy-intensive industries that rely heavily on coal. Additionally, the restrictions of social distancing and lockdowns is likely to inspire more to travel as things return to a sense of “normalcy”.

Graph showing the decrease in carbon dioxide emissions during the recession of the late 2000s, followed by an increase in 2010 as governments resumed industrial activity. Via epa.gov

The Biggest Threat

2019 was the second hottest year on record, and the past decade was the warmest ever recorded. According to António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the coronavirus outbreak shouldn’t distract governments and individuals from continuing to fight against climate change. After the IPCC reported that emissions must be cut by 45% by 2030 to avoid a 1.5° C increase in temperatures, climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber noted that policies must be put into place by 2020 to achieve such a goal.

Read more: Why 2020 is such an important year for climate.

Over the 4 to 5 months the virus has been active, more than 2.5 million people have reported infections and over 100,000 have died. This virus is expected to create the need for prolonged social distancing, extensive testing, and cancellations of large gatherings, possibly until the end of 2021. The idea that this pandemic could span over two years and kill hundreds of thousands of people makes many uneasy, depressed, and anxious. But compared to the virus, the effects of climate change could have much longer and damaging effects.

A 2014 study by the World Health Organization estimates that an additional 250,000 people will die due to climate change every single year between 2030 and 2050 (a “conservative estimate”). Factors include malnutrition, heat stresses, and malaria and hunger. Climate emergencies could also force over 100 million people into extreme poverty, according to the World Bank.

Wildfires, along with other events like tropical storms, could become more common and deadly as a result of climate change. Via Patrick Orton / Getty Images

“We will not fight climate change with a virus. Whilst the disease is expected to be temporary, climate change has been a phenomenon for many years, and will remain with us for decades and require constant action.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
Illustration: Mike Ellis.

Meaningful Shifts

While the environmental consequences of the coronavirus may not be far reaching in terms of emissions, behavioral changes in our societies may prove powerful in fighting against a future climate emergency.

  1. The virus has allowed us to remember what “essential goods” really are. It has also given the average American an inside look at production lags, material shortages, and where goods actually come from. This newfound appreciation for food goods, cleaning supplies and paper products creates a new understanding of the essential item.
  2. We know that “behavioral contagion” works in real life crises. Behavioral contagion, or the way ideas pass through society to create systematic action, has been brilliantly demonstrated by the use of masks in public and social distancing. When enough people act in a crises, others follow. This could help create monumental change in the human psychology of environmental emergencies.
  3. Impeding on natural spaces is seen as dangerous. As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, attention has been brought to the issues of wildlife trading, animal farming, and the interactions between humans and animals. Many outbreaks have been caused by impeding on natural space where wildlife lives. The prevention of wildlife farms and stricter trading rules are already being seen in China.
  4. Telecommuting may become a choice for workers. As this becomes the norm for people around the globe, more people may be allowed to telecommute as a way to avoid large gatherings and ease emissions from cars and planes.
  5. People are questioning the current administration’s response. 54% of survey respondents said they thought President Trump’s response to the coronavirus was not good or poor. They viewed state governor’s responses much more favorably, creating a possibility for climate action on a state by state basis.
  6. Clean energy could create new jobs – and make a difference. Without mass change on an industrial and corporate level, climate emergencies are inevitable. BP created a $100 million campaign in 2005 that popularized the idea of the “personal carbon footprint”, pushing the responsibility of climate change from corporations to individuals. This crisis gives a new opportunity to jump start clean infrastructure and clean energy production by creating jobs for millions of unemployed Americans.
  7. These two crises may be more similar than we know. Those who want to open the economy as soon as possible choose to debunk the science given by major health organizations worldwide. Similarly, climate change has always been declared to be fake or natural by those with interests in the fossil fuel industry. Recognizing this could be the key to changing how we all handle a future climate emergency. Just as with the coronavirus, lack of a plan, delayed action, and denial all caused significant human suffering and mortality, as it surely will with climate change.

“The six stages of climate denial are: It’s not real. It’s not us. It’s not that bad. It’s too expensive to fix. Aha, here’s a great solution (that actually does nothing). And — oh no! Now it’s too late. You really should have warned us earlier.”

Climate Scientist, Katharine Hayhoe

NY Times Article – COVID-19 Effects on Climate: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/27/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-climate-change.html

Featured Image: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/21/world/australia/sydney-climate-emergency.html

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