Infecting over 8 million individuals worldwide since it was first reported in December in Wuhan, China, the novel coronavirus drastically changed the daily lives of people across the globe. There are some parallels in the crises of climate and COVID-19: in their origins from the increasing pressures humans are placing on natural systems, their global nature irrespective of borders, and the fact that they hit the most vulnerable in societies the hardest.
An unprecedented fall in emissions
Faced with viral contagion, countries in Europe and elsewhere in the world went into lockdown: people self-confining at home, economies arrested, travel drastically reduced. This dramatic change in global behaviour forced an unprecedented reduction in energy demand, which possibly offered an unexpected silver lining in the form of an unprecedented reduction in the emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollution.
The first peer-reviewed study on CO2 emissions indicates that the daily global emissions in early April 2020 had decreased by 17% when compared to 2019, with the peak in reductions in individual countries during the lockdowns reaching an average of 26%. A soon to be published study led by Professor Piers Forster built upon this approach to look at 123 countries responsible for 99% of global CO2 emissions and also found a reduction in the emissions of nine pollutants that affect climate and air quality, including nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide. The fall in emissions of CO2 and other pollutants will likely only represent a temporary blip in the overall emissions trajectory and is far from the reduction necessary to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting a global average temperature increase to well below 2°C.
The EU-funded CONSTRAIN project works to predict how the climate will change in the next 20-50 years and define emissions pathways, to better constrain and communicate uncertainties in near-term climate projections and how they affect policy decisions.
What’s good for health is good for the environment – and the economy
While the responses to COVID-19 are demonstrably not enough in themselves to tackle the climate crisis, the pandemic does offer lessons on the way forward to achieve the European Green Deal’s goal of climate neutrality and a net-zero greenhouse gas economy by 2050.
With its origins likely in the wildlife trade in China, the novel coronavirus has shown the risks of increasing human impacts on nature, joining an ever-growing roster of zoonotic diseases breaking out around the globe in recent years. The protection of nature is top of the list in the World Health Organization manifesto for a healthy recovery from COVID-19, which recognises it as the ultimate source of human health.
Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, head of the climate change and health programme at WHO Headquarters, highlighted how the pandemic recovery offers the opportunity to maintain positive changes and for further interventions that benefit both people and the environment, as well as the economy.
Dr Campbell-Lendrum pointed to European cities like Milan, London and Paris that have enacted measures which encourage more cycling and walking, initially to facilitate social distancing, and now have intentions to make some of these changes permanent. He also pointed to the WHO’s manifesto call for ending the use of US$400 billion (approximately €355 billion) of taxpayer money to subsidise fossil fuel industry each year, as a prescription to mitigate the economic damage of the pandemic and lessen the harmful effects of pollution on health and the environment. As with the climate crisis, the pandemic is exacerbating existing inequalities, with the loss of life and income disproportionately affecting those of a lower socioeconomic status, with underlying health conditions, without access to adequate health services and often from a minority background. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has acknowledged the urgency for a level playing field as part of an inclusive and sustainable recovery in the announcement of the EU’s budget instrument Next Generation EU.
A new hope?
Although the United Nations’ COP26 climate conference, originally scheduled to take place in Glasgow in November 2020, has been postponed, Dr Campbell-Lendrum believes the delay could be made to work to the advantage of action on the climate crisis: “There is a real opportunity to link the investments on COVID-19 recovery seamlessly into the commitments that are made for the renewal of the Paris Agreement and COP26. We can concentrate on getting the COVID-19 recovery packages right in a way that doesn’t compromise our future”.
Dr Rosen and Professor Forster also remain hopeful about the possibilities that lie ahead post-pandemic: “We only need to make a relatively modest investment in a green recovery to make the Paris Agreement goals attainable. If we don’t make better choices now – for example, tapping in to the opportunities presented by the European Green Deal, not only to cut emissions but create a better society for all – then when will we?”
As the world takes its first steps on the road to recovery from COVID-19, it could bring with it a newfound determination for tackling the global threat of climate change as a global community, in a manner that is equitable and just for all.