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Coronavirus: the real impact on the climate

  • Written by  Matt Maynard
  • Published in Climate
Coronavirus: the real impact on the climate
01 Apr
Covid-19 has forced us to reduce destructive atmospheric behaviours and has reminded us that we are at the mercy of nature. Matt Maynard looks into the effect that viral-mitigation is having on global emissions, and asks whether current material and emotional responses to coronavirus could help limit the climate pandemic in the future

How should our global population react to a planetary emergency? In the case of Covid-19 we’ve taken drastic action, grounding planes, restricting production as well as consumption. We’ve compromised the global economy and limited personal freedoms. On every channel we are sharing information about the gravity of the crisis, communicating why such radical changes to our lives are needed to limit the extent of a global catastrophe.

Yet, our species isn’t skilled at imagining a threat to life until it’s on our doorstep. Catastrophic effects of climate change will be felt unless we manage to reduce our global emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, as we attempt to limit warming to 1.5C. Like Covid-19, there is currently no technological vaccine that will provide salvation.

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Covid-19’s carbon impact

The world shop is currently closed. Many of our most carbon intensive activities, including international travel, trade and production for foreign markets have been put on hold. ‘Significant economic pain seems unavoidable in all countries,’ the World Bank stated on Monday in its April Economic Update for East Asia and the Pacific. With lower estimates for regional economic growth now at -0.5 per cent (compared to 5.8 per cent in 2019).

The United Nations climate change talks, COP26, due to have been held in Glasgow this year have now postponed until 2021. A COP26 spokesperson told Geographical that: ‘COVID-19 is clearly reducing the scope for in-person international meetings,’ citing recent instances where COP26 president Alok Sharma and finance minister Mark Carney have been working via teleconference. They did not respond to comments regarding the coherence that reduced flying would create with the conference’s goals: an irony not lost on climate activists who annually watch 30,000 delegates jet around the world to talk so-far unsuccessfully about reducing global emissions.

Yet, despite the Covid-19 outbreak, the planet is still a long way from global cooling and a return of glaciers. While the flow of anthropogenic greenhouse gases is decreasing, the stock is still rising. The Mona Loa Observatory in Hawaii, which measures global atmospheric CO2 concentration, has reported an overall increase since 26 February, with no Covid-19 signal yet observed. This is partly due to the seasonal decrease in global carbon sequestration in cooler northern hemisphere months, but also because even deeper emission-cutting measures are required than those currently in place under Covid-19 in order to tackle the climate crisis.

Early estimates for global emission reductions for 2020 are ‘vanishingly thin’, decreasing only 0.5 per cent to 2.2 per cent on 2019 levels, according to research published last Thursday by The Breakthrough Institute. While China temporarily reduced its coal consumption by a quarter during the height of its crisis, it is already returning to normal levels.

Nevertheless, there is some indication that even temporary, and small, changes may prove useful. ‘The significant reduction in vehicle traffic in London and across the world provide an opportunity to evaluate the impact of vehicle emissions reductions, in the absence of other significant reductions such as power generation,’ says Dr Benjamin Barratt, a senior environmental lecturer at King’s College London. ‘Importantly, as vehicles are removed from roads, rather than replaced by electric vehicles, the whole vehicle impact can be assessed, including non-exhaust emissions such as tyre and brake wear. This change is likely to bring about a shift in atmospheric composition in a way that we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to study and may reveal new evidence that can be used to formulate more effective improvement measures.’

Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

Covid-19’s climate-behaviour impact

Ultimately, however, it is the behaviour changes that may arise from the current lockdown that could prove most significant. ‘We are now being forced to adopt working practices that have long been proposed as more sustainable, efficient and cleaner – working from home, virtual meetings, remote conferences, online teaching and others,’ says Barratt. ‘This should drive an improvement in technologies facilitating this way of working and demonstrate to companies that such practices are not only acceptable but, in many cases preferable. While we all need face-to-face social contact to thrive, our dependence on commuting for working and learning will be challenged. I fully expect the status quo to be challenged and found wanting, ultimately leading to cleaner air, healthier populations and a healthier planet.’

According to climate behavioural psychologist Paul Hoggett, a professor of social policy at the University of West England, the de-growth we are currently experiencing is part of the systemic change that will most-likely be forced upon us to combat the climate crisis. Hoggett calls these measures ‘climate austerity’ and believes they will be necessary to drastically reduce emissions to avoid a global climate pandemic. ‘Covid-19 is a trial run,’ he adds. And he is not just talking about material changes.

‘People have been forced to shut down and self-isolate, experiencing a whole range of forms of lifestyle that they never imagined.’ Hoggett predicts that if the Covid-19 crisis deepens, shortages felt now will be similar to those felt in 2050 and 2060 when the worst effects of climate change will be felt. Reduced consumption and mobility will also have mental health effects, Hoggett believes. Covid-19, like climate change, will disproportionately affect the poor who are unable to bulk-buy and who have less access to spaces for recreational respite.

Nations such as Brazil and the US, which have downplayed the threat of Covid-19, have approached the virus in the same way they approach climate change, according to Hoggett. The steps they have taken first involve denying it exists; then admitting it exists but claiming that it’s not important, then stating that it does exist and is important but that the economy should take precedence. ‘It’s a classic denier’s response,’ Hoggett adds, of the nationalistic reaction to a planetary problem requiring global consensus for resolution.

Holding the Covid-19 ground

Covid-19 has created a momentary window into the global human condition. ‘When this is all over,’ said journalist and writer Martin Wroe in a broadcast last Saturday, ‘perhaps we will remember that our individual health is bound up in the health of everybody else.’

The global viral outbreak presents us with a personal existential crisis about our own individual mortality, Hoggett explains, and climate change presents us with the mortality of our species. ‘The two crises face us with the issue of our ecological interdependence with nature,’ he adds.

To presume human ingenuity will rid us of human-created problems is described by Wroe as a ‘fake luxury’, which hopefully we will begin to abandon following Covid-19. In the aftermath, there will be the chance to reconsider this false narrative, as well as our relationship with nature.

There will be political criticism too, Hoggett believes. ‘This idea that governments are powerless in face of economic realities (to tackle the climate crisis) will no longer suffice.’ Hogget is referring to governments shutting down the polluting-wheels of production. But, in reigniting global economies with stimulus packages, Director Glen Peters from the Centre for International Climate and Environment Research, also believes there will also be opportunities to invest in clean technologies to reduce emissions.

Covid-19 is providing an insight into our species’ technological incapacity to confront an existential global threat. And, like Covid-19, there is no silver-bullet vaccine for our disruption to the atmosphere. Hogget’s psychologist colleagues talked before the virus about the public’s binary reaction to the climate crises; of either naive hope, or catastrophic despair. Ultimately, our responsibility after the virus will be to better hold the middle ground. Anything else will be a failure of imagination.

Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

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