The novel coronavirus sweeping the globe has led governments to institute widespread quarantines to stem the spread. Many industries have slowed production or shutdown entirely, and economic activity has slowed to a crawl. This has naturally led to a sudden reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But how great will the effect be, and will it buy us any real time?
On The Ground
In the wake of COVID-19, good news stories have sprung up as people look for a silver lining. Unfortunately, these stories aren’t always true. There aren’t dolphins in the waters of Venice, though the water has cleared due to reduced boat activity. And drunken elephants did not begin roaming the mountains of China.
Despite this, there have been notable reductions in emissions in several areas due to government-mandated lockdowns. Northern Italy is seeing a much lower concentration of nitrogen dioxide, likely due to reduced industrial and vehicular activity. Carbon monoxide levels have similarly dropped in New York, while China has seen its carbon emissions temporarily drop by a full 25%.
On the surface of it, these are all promising numbers. Many are cautiously optimistic that this could be a major development to help stave off the worst of climate change for a little longer. Nonetheless, it’s early days yet, and what happens after the crisis passes is just as important as what’s happening now.
Similar Situations – Similar Results
The most relevant comparison with the current situation would be the 2007/2008 Global Financial Crisis. Due to reduced economic activity, the world’s total Gross Domestic Product contracted by 0.1%, and emissions output dropped by 1.3%. Following years led to a rapid increase as economic activity picked up, with 2010 reaching an all time high.
While the current situation is fluid and changing rapidly, OECD worst-case predictions are that the global economy will continue to grow, albeit at a reduced rate of just 1.5 this year. This is due to widespread job losses, and the slowdown and shutdown of many industries. Modelling based on this data from Glen Peters suggests that this could lead to an emissions reduction of up to 1.2%.
There’s scope for these numbers to change drastically in the coming months. Unease in global markets could lead to further issues with liquidity, or a resurgence of the virus could extend lockdowns, keeping industries closed for a longer period of time. Alternative modelling may show that the reductions in air transport and vehicle use may have a larger effect than first anticipated. At the same time, the crisis may also hold up work on projects that aim to reduce emissions, negating expected gains in carbon efficiency going forward. As it stands, the best guess we have shows a significant, but small, reduction in emissions this year.
Is It Enough?
In 2018, the UN warned that we had just 12 years left to put a stop to the worst effects of climate change. At the time, the goal was to reduce carbon pollution by 45% by 2030, dropping down to net zero by 2050. Given that sweeping lockdowns of entire cities at a time, along with massive reductions in all international air travel, is only netting us 1.2%, it’s clear that a worldwide epidemic is not the silver bullet that will solve climate change once and for all.
The goals put in place by the UN may seem lofty, particularly when even a global pandemic barely makes a dent. Notwithstanding, they are achievable with the technology we have available. The only requirement is we invest $300 billion to achieve it. In a time of turmoil, with unemployment spiraling ever higher and a new disease threatening the health of the world, this may seem like an impossible sum. However, given the recent expenditures governments have made in the name of economic stimulus, well into the trillions of dollars, it’s unlikely the citizens of the world will continue to accept affordability as an excuse.