It’s been a month now since I’ve returned home from the university dorms, only leaving the house for essential reasons, like exercising or doing groceries. It feels like it has been forever since we were able to spend time in groups and go out for a drink at a café, and the world as we know it has changed immensely over the span of a few weeks. Easter weekend has just passed, the date U.S. President Donald Trump aimed to have the country opened again after its COVID-19 lockdown. The situation still seems very far from normality, but where are we now? And how has COVID-19 affected the environment? Are there lessons we can learn from the current pandemic in tackling climate change? I’d like to delve deeper into these issues.
Where are we now?
As of Easter Sunday, April 12th 2020, there have been 1,787,766 confirmed cases and 109,691 deaths worldwide due to COVID-19, and widespread widespread job losses, causing huge damage to the global economy.
How has COVID-19 affected the environment?
It has been impossible to ignore the numerous news articles and blogposts describing the fish returning to clear waters in Venetian canals, reduction in air pollution, and dramatic drops in greenhouse gas emissions. Nitrogen dioxide, a gas produced by combustion engines that causes respiratory problems, has been seen to decline in China since January, according to the European Space Agency. In March, coinciding with their lockdown, Italy experienced similar patterns. Additionally, fine soot particles are 20-30% lower than in previous years. If we take a look at carbon dioxide, a research team at Columbia found an 8-10% drop over New York in March 2020 compared to the same month a year prior. In China, it is estimated that industrial shutdowns caused a 25% drop in emissions of CO2 in February, compared to 2019.
These values, although substantial, have been stirring up a lot of controversy. A 2011 study measuring carbon dioxide levels based on ice cores revealed that past global wars and epidemics did leave subtle marks on atmospheric CO2 levels, but it is clear that small changes are currently not going to alleviate the climate crisis. The pandemic will also eventually result in large amounts of medical and hazardous waste, contributing to existing environmental issues. Scientists and researchers are trying to spread the word that the climate needs sustained reductions in emissions; a global, temporary lockdown due to a pandemic will not be enough. Any environmental benefits that arise from the global pandemic are likely to be fleeting and negligible.
Nonetheless, comparisons have been drawn between both crises, primarily as both are widescale disrupters with grave consequences on human health, food security, agricultural security, political and economic stability. While comparing the two crises, it is essential to note their differing timescales and immediacy. As Victor Galaz, from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, puts it, “the Corona crisis is a 100-meter race and the climate crisis is a marathon. We have to run both at the same time”. If we have to battle both crises simultaneously, we might as well learn from mistakes and build on successes.
Are there lessons we can learn from the current pandemic in tackling climate change?
A key similarity between climate change and COVID-19 is the initial widespread state of denial. Climate change denialists claimed humans had no role in the destruction of the environment; the average European citizen thought COVID-19 would not affect them a month ago. Several countries have shown astonishing denial of the global pandemic, but this switch from denial to acceptance to action has occurred in a matter of weeks, differing greatly from our current climate crisis. To name a few examples, U.S. senators have stated they would prefer people dying over their economy dying, Turkmenistan has officially banned the word “coronavirus”, Brazilian president Bolsonaro has claimed the risks of coronavirus were overblown, and Boris Johnson did little early on to tackle coronavirus, while now recently discharged from the ICU after enduring the virus himself. We have experienced this exact stage in the climate change discussion, but stretched over a much longer period of time. Initially, the anthropogenic cause of climate change was heavily denied, but after more scientific evidence arose, it became clear the issue could no longer be avoided. Since the consequences of climate change are much less direct than those of the coronavirus, action has been heavily delayed.
Implications of crises
Upon delving deeper into the implications of both crises, more similarities seem to arise, as well as more opportunities for learning. It is highly uncertain what the future will look like, and therefore the implications are difficult to predict. For COVID-19, the two main unknowns are how long the pandemic is bound to last, and how countries’ economies will bounce back. Both situations will require major economic disruptions or reconstructions, and it seems as though many countries and leaders are not quite ready to do so.
In both cases, it is clear that efforts to save the situation are almost always put in place too late, after experts’ doomsday warnings are proven true; societies must learn to value early warnings. Both the climate crisis and COVID-19 are an ultimate collective action problem, but too often the need for collective action turns into an excuse for inaction. The challenges are increasingly global in nature and will also require systemic, collaborative solutions. Coronavirus has led to social distancing, grounded flights, and closed borders; climate change must lead to cleaner technologies, wiser investments, and revised economic structures. If state intervention deems to be successful in combatting the coronavirus, similar principles should be applied aggressively in tackling the climate crisis.
Moments of crisis = moments of opportunity
Moments of crisis are always moments of opportunity. In the coming months, many essential decisions will be made and the world as we know it is bound to change. These changes can be for the better, but only if we do not return to our “business as usual” situation. It is crucial that a post-COVID recovery plan is ambitious, one that perhaps rethinks our current economy and begins to focus on the health of people and our planet, rather than growth. Now is the time for a new “normal”, with our environment at the center.