Coronavirus and the Road to Climate Change Recovery

The speed and means of the coronavirus crisis have taken the world by surprise. In just 3 months, the outbreak has forced countries and economies to shut down, putting millions into isolation. At the time of this writing, the pandemic had infected over 2 million people and claimed more than 153,000 lives across the world. The unnerving speed of the virus spread forced most governments – although with varying degrees of delay – to limit gatherings, close borders and shutdown many economic activities. These unprecedented actions could not but make us wonder about another global crisis looming on the horizon – climate change.

It is easy to forget, but as the COVID-19 was quickly spreading in Wuhan, China, the rest of the world was in an “all-too-familiar” pattern of denialism. This slow reaction led to a huge loss of lives in countries such as Italy, Spain and the United States. Global action exploded in the face of the virus only when we witnessed the cost of inaction. There was no time for skeptics or resistance to COVID-19 policy. As a result, health professionals’ advice assumed a leading role in shaping governments’ policies. Climate change, however, has been on the radar for decades. In a tweet, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe wrote, “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 is too late. You really should have warned us earlier.”

Nature is sending us a message

Humans’ highly industrialized systems harvest the natural resources of the planet to produce by-products and a huge amount of waste. This disruptive system is exhausting the natural ability of the environment to balance itself. This same phenomenon is also responsible for outbreaks like COVID-19. In other words, both climate change and COVID-19 emergencies are results of the pursuit of infinite growth at the expense of the environment.

We are carelessly exposing ourselves to yet unknown pathogens. Ebola and other viruses such as MERS, for instance, were triggered by human-animal contact in disturbed natural habitats. According to Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, the exploitation of natural resources has created opportunities for “pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people.” What is even more frightening is that these processes may be altering the way viruses are passed among species.

Although both Climate Change and COVID-19 are rooted in the same draining economic behaviour, and both are deadly and disruptive, governments have seen them as separate phenomena. They have therefore responded somewhat differently to them. In this emerging new reality, coronavirus has much to teach us about how societies should deal with global crises. Current measures to tackle climate change have taken little heed of the scale and progression of the environmental changes we are experiencing. Various aspects of global warming progress at different speeds and in different locations. There are also certain thresholds which, if crossed, will cause change to become irreversible.

Though mortality rates as related to climate change are not as visible as those for COVID-19, it can be much deadlier than the virus. Global warming of +3C above pre-industrial levels could lead to a series of catastrophic outcomes. It could decrease the fertility of soils, affecting our ability to produce food, intensify droughts, causing coastal inundations; as well as cause severe heatwaves, which have already proven deadly in terms of high temperatures and the unprecedented wildfires they cause. In British Columbia, where I live, the wildfires that occurred over the last two years were the largest on record, emitting more than double the CO2 of the province’s annual fossil fuel across all sectors.

Unintended benefit

It appears as though the pandemic lockdown had an unintended benefit – clean air. In China, Italy and the US, the fog of pollution has lifted. Global carbon emissions have dropped as a result of reduced fossil fuel usage. Efforts to stop the spread of the virus in China, in February alone, caused a 25 per cent drop in carbon emissions, according to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA). This is equivalent to approximately 200 million tons of CO2 – more than 35 per cent of the annual emissions of Canada.

NASA and the European Space Agency have released satellite images that demonstrate a dramatic reduction in atmospheric nitrogen (NO2) – a pollutant released by the burning of fossil fuels – in major cities across the world. In Toronto – the most congested city in Canada in 2019 – there has been a drastic reduction in toxic NO2 levels from last year. Although NO2 is not a greenhouse gas, it can have severe effects on human health, especially respiratory illness.

Figure 1. Photo Credits: NO2 levels [blue] in Toronto, Canada. Descartes Labs/ Sentinel-5p satellite
In the short term, the restrictions put in place due to the pandemic seems to be limiting carbon emissions and improving air quality. However, some governments seem to be throwing environmental regulations out the window, preparing for post-pandemic economic recovery. The question is: in the longer term, will the virus lessen or intensify climate change?

Inflection point

The swift global response to COVID-19 proves that our societies are, in fact, agile, dynamic and resilient. It shows that we have the capacity to embrace and resolve different levels of challenges if we want to. Conversely, the global community’s response to climate change has been slow with a “thin” layer of doubt sowed by the fossil fuel industry. The fact is, climate change is happening, and it does not wait for 2030 or 2050 sustainable development targets. Dr. Barbara Buchner, Global Director at the Climate Policy Initiative (CPI), elaborates:

The problem with selling prevention is that it’s very hard to see its success. Climate change is invisible. Rebuilding in the wake of the pandemic must take into account longer-term strategies and incorporate sustainability at their core. Obviously, the first priority here must be to protect the public health. But there is no greater second priority than using this crisis to accelerate the low-carbon transition that is already ongoing because climate change is threatening our very civilization.

However, some nations seem to disagree. Citing COVID-19, the United States suspended the enforcement of environmental protection regulations. While Prime Minister of the Czech Republic has reportedly urged Europe to set aside the Green Deal policy amid the pandemic. According to the World Bank Group, in order to recover from COVID-19, structural changes will need to be enacted. This includes delinking loan requirements from “excessive regulations, licensing regimes, trade protection, etc. as to foster markets growth prospects.”

The coronavirus is indeed having disastrous effects. But, in responding to it, ignoring the other prominent global threat could prove more dangerous. Recent actions indicate that when countries start to reboot their economies, emissions could reach higher levels than before the epidemic hit, and there is precedent. During the 2008 financial crisis, there were also drops in carbon emissions, which ultimately bounced back as economies recovered. A $586 billion stimulus package passed by the Chinese government in 2009 largely went to infrastructure projects. The enormous increase in pollution that came as a result created turmoil that steered the Chinese government in September 2013 to create their first air pollution action plan.

The world is at an inflection point. We have the chance to reset our globalized systems in a way that mitigates climate change. As recently noted by the United Nations’ secretary-general, “the threat from COVID-19 is temporary, whereas the threat from heatwaves, floods and extreme storms resulting in the loss of human life will remain with us for years.” Even from a health preceptive, the short-term benefits from less-toxic air would improve and save lives. Though, the question remains, after the worst is over, could this fallout result in us changing our carbon-intensive lifestyles in ways that could balance the environment and prevent future pandemics?

A clean energy pause is not the solution

We are already experiencing the outcomes of a global recession. This will potentially stall the economy shift to clean energy. This new economic situation will tank proposals for renewable energy projects around the world due to the disruptions of the global supply chain. The pandemic, along with an oil price and production war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, could be bad news for the climate, too. Consumers often use cheaper energy less efficiently. In Canada, for example, 80% of existing buildings is expected to still be in operation by 2030, and low oil prices could make people less inclined toward projects like retrofitting homes and offices for energy and carbon efficiency.

Even on the macro levels, social distancing and lockdowns are slowing climate research and fieldwork. As a result, it is unknown how much climate data will be lost or never be collected in the process. Conferences and gatherings of researchers and world leaders to address global warming have also been postponed or cancelled, and the UN Climate Change Conference scheduled for November could be next. At the same time, climate activism that hinges on public platforms is being forced indoors. These factors could hinder clean energy progress, at a time when, under the Paris Agreement, countries are meant to announce new pledges to reduce emissions. This obstruction would increase the likelihood that nations would exceed warming-limit goals.

Figure 2. Greta Thunberg on Twitter calling for a digital Climate Strike
Rebuilding in the wake of the pandemic

Our “temporarily” cleaner air should inspire us to fight for more permanent changes. Personal travel, consumption and even purchasing habits are changing, which makes us wonder if this could mean the start of a meaningful change. However, to have a meaningful effect on global emissions, these changes should become the heart of a more holistic regime – in essence, migrating away from the carbon-intensive living and working patterns that shape our lives. Societies’ adaptability to respond to COVID-19 could inspire us to commute efficiently, minimize household waste and rely more on local supply chains, which will ultimately reduce the carbon footprint of our actions.

The way policies respond to this pandemic will influence carbon emissions and climate change for many years to come. The stimulus plans and back-to-work programs currently being developed will affect our economies and lifestyles in the long run. Though some seek measures against climate change that are as dramatic as those in response to COVID-19, they should not be. We need a holistic climate transition plan integrated into our pandemic response. Obviously, the priority now is boosting health care systems and providing immediate relief for the unemployed. Nevertheless, the long-term transition should include reforms that prioritizes both the health of people and the climate over profit.

First, we must make sure that stimulus packages introduced by governments around the world – like Canada’s impressive $82 billion plan for workers and businesses – are not wasted on bailing out the fossil fuel industry. Instead, a calculated subset of the funds should be allocated to renewable energy production and enforcing low carbon transition plans in general. This would not only aid to reverse the climate disaster we are already living in, but also reduce the likelihood of similar pandemic breakouts.

New policy mindset

Moving forward, we have to observe, guide and inform how decision-makers deal with the global recession and how the pandemic will affect attitude on climate action globally. Climate change – although being a slow and incremental process – has the potential to cause more deaths than COVID-19 in the long term. However, the deaths are one step detached from CO2 emissions, appearing instead as a series of “natural” disasters. Despite the slow timescale, global warming implications seem to run ahead of societies’ ability to keep pace. Since the connection between emissions and the mortality caused by them is more abstract, climate change has not garnered the same sense of urgency as the pandemic. Therefore, people are less willing to accept challenging policy decisions.

Methodologies to limit climate change can be complex, and it is yet unclear how to minimize carbon emissions while maintaining full economic stability. This lack of clarity has contributed to policy paralysis. The toughest hurdle, however, is the fact that stabilizing climate requires all nations to reduce their carbon emissions – going it alone doesn’t work. Though there are ideologies of how to encourage nations to cooperate, it would still necessitate collaboration among committed nations, to begin with – albeit maintaining such commitment through an economic recession will be a challenge.

At this point, the policy changes required to mitigate climate change still appear far less disruptive – economically, socially and culturally – than the measures being taken to tackle COVID-19. In fact, carbon emissions could probably be brought down dramatically through a phased framework to increase global carbon price. The building sector, for example, is responsible for a full 39% of global energy-related carbon emissions. With an estimate to add over 230 billion square meters of new construction worldwide in the next four decades, aggressively pushing for carbon-neutral buildings will significantly help reduce near-term emissions.

A better future

Although the current measures being taken against COVID-19 cannot protect the planet from climate change, we do have the opportunity to create a better future. There is a possible outcome where economic solutions also include prioritizing the building of a carbon-neutral society. While our new reality could detract funds and attention from the climate crisis, it could also imbue this crisis with a sense of urgency at a time when governments are willing to spend large amounts of money. The disruptions caused by the coronavirus provide an opportunity – even in the midst of great suffering – to reassess our sense of what is possible in our society. Maybe the new reality caused by the “shelter in place” lifestyle offers a glimpse of what life might be like if we changed our business-as-usual patterns. Climate crisis has already proved that the way our societies and economies are organized is unsustainable on a planet of finite resources.

Pictures of dolphins and swans allegedly returning to now-cleaner Venice canals circulating on social media made it easy to think that lockdowns had caused “nature” to heal itself in humans’ absence. This is the wrong climate lesson we should be taking away from this pandemic. Humans are part of nature, and activities that hurt the environment also hurt us. Marshall Burke, a researcher in Stanford’s earth system science department, expects that “two months of lower levels of air pollution in China has saved the lives of 4,000 children under the age of 5 and 73,000 adults over the age of 70.” Once the worst of the COVID-19 is over, we should view this time as evidence that our societies are capable of making great changes in the face of global emergencies. Perhaps the timelier question is not whether the virus is “good” or “bad” for climate, but whether we can create a functioning society that supports people without threatening life on Earth, including our own.


Salah Imam is a sustainability advisor at McFarlane Biggar Architects in Vancouver, B.C. and a research fellow at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at the University of Calgary in the field of low carbon design. He can be reached at www.officemb.ca

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