What the Coronavirus Pandemic Teaches Us About Fighting Climate Change

In Brief

What the Coronavirus Pandemic Teaches Us About Fighting Climate Change

The coronavirus pandemic has reduced global carbon emissions, but that progress won’t last unless governments act to reduce emissions permanently and prepare for future disasters.

Several years ago, a friend asked me the central question bedeviling those fighting climate change: “What can stop the growth of emissions?”

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I simply replied, “A pandemic.”

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That prediction may prove short-lived at best. Emissions have declined as a result of the pandemic of a new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, but after it’s over, they will likely resume their upward climb. The world must learn from this current catastrophe to prepare for the calamities of the future.

How have coronavirus shutdowns impacted emissions?

The crisis has already reduced carbon emissions. During a four-week period beginning in February, China, the world’s largest emitter, saw its emissions fall by 25 percent. Since the start of the Lunar New Year, China’s six largest power plants have experienced a 40 percent reduction in coal consumption compared to the last quarter of 2019.

In Europe, the daily carbon emissions of the European Union’s twenty-seven member states have fallen by 58 percent since the implementation of strict measures to curb the pandemic, including nationwide lockdowns.

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In the United States, the world’s second largest emitter, the Energy Information Agency has predicted that national energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will fall by 7.5 percent in 2020 [PDF], compared to a decrease of 2.7 percent in 2019. Researchers have determined that carbon monoxide emissions in New York City have dropped by almost 50 percent compared to last year.

Will the reductions last?

That remains an open question. When business shutdowns finally end, nations will face boundless pressure to grow their economies, generate jobs, and rescue struggling industries. That pressure could eclipse ambitions for advancing climate-related measures. This prediction is not without precedent. Following the financial crisis in 2008, global carbon dioxide emissions levels initially fell 1.4 percent by 2009, but they quickly rebounded to increase by 5.9 percent the following year as countries worked to restart their economies.

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This pressure is already apparent in the United States. Congress ignored climate in its $2 trillion stimulus package. Meanwhile, the pandemic has badly whipped the energy efficiency sector, the country’s largest source of clean energy jobs. And in the midst of it all, the Donald J. Trump administration rolled back automobile fuel efficiency standards, the federal government’s signature effort to reduce emissions.

A man wears a face mask in front of New Delhi's India Gate, seen with blue skies.
India’s twenty-one-day lockdown has improved the air quality in New Delhi. Pallava Bagla/Corbis/Getty Images

Global policymaking has also fallen victim to the pandemic, with the United Nations postponing the international climate summit, originally set for November, until 2021. Nations had been expected to bring stronger pledges for emissions reductions under the Paris Agreement, but those will have to wait.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency has predicted an increase in methane emissions in 2020 as falling oil prices reduce incentives to capture the gas—particularly troubling as methane is over eighty times more potent as a global warming agent than carbon dioxide.

How does extreme weather alter the calculus?

Despite any short-term emissions drop, the rest of 2020 will likely bring extreme weather fueled by rising temperatures. In the United States, scientists predict that this year’s hurricane season, which is just over two months away, will be more destructive than typical seasons. California faces a greater than usual risk for large fires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasters predict that major to moderate flooding will likely affect twenty-three states this spring. Record-breaking heat is also likely.

This bundle of disasters will tax the United States severely as it struggles to contain the coronavirus’s spread. And it will not be alone, as warming brings record-breaking extremes worldwide. Multiple extreme weather events occurring within a single region in rapid sequence or in clusters could compound the damage, undermining governments’ responsiveness, U.S. intelligence agencies warn [PDF].

What can we learn from the pandemic?

Despite all its challenges, the pandemic provides an opportunity to develop a better path forward. The global fallout from COVID-19 demonstrates the need to invest in resilience measures before a catastrophe strikes, whether it’s another virus or a superstorm.

In practice, that would mean a range of policies. The scarcity of personal protective equipment for health-care staff and the shortage of ventilators for sick patients should drive lawmakers to maintain larger stockpiles for new climate-driven extremes. Policymakers should also make sure that building practices account for increasing climate risk and follow better land-use principles. The United States can no longer afford to invest in energy grids that will not withstand the next storm or developments that will burn in the next wildfire.

So although it’s true that a pandemic has slowed emissions, there should be little comfort in that pause. Even amid sickness and climate-fueled disasters, governments and citizens alike must act to reduce emissions permanently while simultaneously preparing for the climate-fueled disasters—and pandemics—ahead.

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