What does COVID-19 really mean for climate change?

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There is no doubt that a global lockdown will have big impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. For example, China’s emissions were estimated to be 25% lower than normal during their month-long shutdown. A reduction equal to about three times New Zealand’s gross annual emissions. But what does this really mean for climate change?

As we all begin to get used to life in lockdown, we keep hearing about the natural world fighting back on the outside. Fish have returned to the canals of Venice, the Delhi haze has given way to clear blue skies and the sound of birdsong is louder than ever in the streets of Wellington. Indeed, Greater Wellington Regional Council announced that air pollution from traffic emissions in Wellington city centre was 72% lower than normal in the first week of the lock-down.

There is no doubt that a global lockdown will have big impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. For example, China’s emissions were estimated to be 25% lower than normal during their month-long shutdown. A reduction equal to about three times New Zealand’s gross annual emissions. But what does this really mean for climate change?

The short answer is we don’t know. Although emissions will almost certainly drop in the short term, what happens after that will prove critical. The reason for this lies in understanding the way greenhouse gases work, and why emissions are only part of the story.

Carbon dioxide is what’s known as a “stock” pollutant. This means that, once it’s emitted, it stays in the atmosphere for a very long time (often centuries), allowing it to build up more and more as we continue to burn fossil fuels. This means that even if emissions of greenhouse gases are low at the moment, atmospheric concentrations will remain high.

Think of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a stack of bricks. In business as usual times, we are adding one brick per month to the stack. As we know, over the years since the industrial revolution, this stack has grown big. Now imagine that, for one month, we don’t add a brick to the stack. The difference to the size of the stack is negligible.

A group of scientists from the Global Carbon Project has said global carbon emissions could drop by 5% in 2020, the first annual drop since the 1.4% drop following the 2008 global financial crisis. But, unless this reduction is sustained, the effect on the climate will be negligible. In fact, according to the UN’s Emissions Gap Report 2019, emissions need to fall 7.6% per year if the world is to limit warming to 1.5°C below preindustrial levels. As UN boss António Guterres said earlier this year, “we will not fight climate change with a virus.”

As China emerges from its shutdown and normal life slowly resumes, there are already signs of emissions returning to normal levels. Air pollution is on the rise again, and the Chinese Government’s attempts to stimulate the economy could outweigh any reductions that occurred over the past couple of months. 

Despite this, there may be some lessons in the current reduction in emissions being seen around the world. While unable to meet face to face, more people are finding that attending meetings virtually works fine, or that actually the home office is more productive than they thought. It may be that, when the country comes out of lockdown, and it will, more businesses and individuals will forgo that business trip for a virtual meeting, or avoid driving the car to work every day and stay home.

Still, the crucial step will be how the Government responds to the economic downturn already taking hold on the country. The Government has called for “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects to generate jobs in the construction industry, but many kiwis have called for a ‘green’ stimulus package that aids the achievement of our environmental goals. These aren’t mutually exclusive. The Government could consider funding cycleways, public transport, electricity infrastructure, sustainable buildings and green innovation. This package will provide a real opportunity for the Government to think big and our emissions reduction goals at the heart of its policy.

For now, the priority of Government and all New Zealanders, and rightly so, is breaking the spread of COVID-19 and minimising the physical, mental and financial toll on individuals. But, one can’t help but see some hope in the outside world as animals, plants and clear skies flourish while planes are grounded and cars stuck in driveways. Will we let this pass us by and go back to life as it was, or will make the choice to not go back, and instead start to make the changes so overdue to protect our future against climate change?

Visit Climate Action Now for regular news and other content related to Climate Change.

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