Climate Change and COVID-19: What has changed?

By Ricarda Blümcke

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization officially declared Covid-19 a pandemic. At that point, our planet had already warmed by 1.2C since pre-industrial times. What followed this were unprecedented restrictions, encompassing travel constraints, working and studying from home, and business closures worldwide – dramatically reducing business activities, and with it, the amount of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. During the first lockdown, optimism persisted that at least the climate, including the air quality, would benefit and thus improve. For instance, in China, one of the world’s biggest polluters, the lockdown and other pandemic-related restrictions led to a reduction of 25% of CO2 emissions in the span of four weeks. 

Despite this, while it is true that the pandemic led to a temporary reduction in CO2 emissions for a few months as compared to the previous year, as shown by the International Energy Agency’s tracker of 2020s emissions, the overall level of CO2 in the atmosphere has still seen an increase in comparison to 2019. In June 2021, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was at 419 parts per million, making it a level not seen in around four million years – at a time where the sea level was approximately 23.7 meters higher than it currently is today. When it comes to air pollution, by June 2020 the air pollution levels in many countries had already returned to their pre-pandemic levels. This was, for example, the case in China. 2020 also proved to be a record-breaking year in terms of extreme weather events. Therefore, when looking long-term, the actual effect of pandemic-related shutdowns and restrictions did not bring the changes in the climate that some had hoped for. Estimates of the direct effects of the pandemic are negligible. Models estimate that pandemic-related measures only led to a cooling of approximately 0.01C when compared to a scenario that follows the current national policies without the pandemic by 2030. The World Meteorological Organization, a United Nations Agency, has published an analysis that we are now facing a 44% chance of the Earth warming to 1.5C in the next five years, making this a significant increase compared to the previous year.

While the reality of pandemic-induced changes in regards to climate change have been lower than many had hoped, scientists have stated that the long-term impact of this current pandemic largely depends on the actions taken by governments in regards to economic recovery funds. These will have a far greater chance of successfully reducing the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Models run by Forester et al. have calculated that if economic recovery continues on the current trend, which is heavily focused on fossil fuels, then we are likely to reach and exceed the limit of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels by 2050. On the other hand, if governments choose an economic recovery pathway with green stimulus provisions that include measures aimed at climate policy, then the model predicts being able to save around 0.3C in future global warming by 2050, which would allow us to keep under the 1.5C limit set by the Paris Agreement. 

Perhaps one of the biggest issues that the pandemic has highlighted is that even massive shifts in the behavior of people, such as significantly fewer people traveling or using the car to get to work, are unable to lead to significant changes in our climate if they are only occurring for a relatively short amount of time, as we have seen with the pandemic. However, underlying changes, such as green investments being part of the economic recovery stimulus can have far greater impacts and will allow us to influence our current trajectory. Hence, bettering our chances of keeping to the agreement that was made in Paris. Therefore, the bigger impact of the pandemic on our climate will be decided by the actions and choices that governments around the world will take in regard to the economic recovery that is still facing us and which choices will continue to influence us in the decades to come.  The positive news is therefore that the European Union has already decided last year to make 25% of the 75 billion euro recovery plan focused on green investments, such as helping to shift to sustainable agriculture and promoting renewable energy sources.

In the long run, one of the opportunities that the Corona pandemic has given us is that we now have a new baseline for how much is possible to achieve digitally. However, Corona has also led to many disadvantages when it comes to climate action. One of the most significant will likely be the enormous costs that COVID-19 has caused and will continue to cause for many years to come. The IMF estimated that the Covid pandemic could amount to around 28 trillion dollars in output losses for the global economy, which will most likely lead to climate change being put on the backburner. This might make the 5.7 trillion dollars that the World Economic Forum has estimated that it would need for an effective climate change mitigation and adaptation strategy too much for many countries to pay. That the ongoing pandemic has placed climate change as a secondary problem has already been seen by the fact that the 2020 UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, has been postponed from November 2020 to November 2021. The conference was planned to serve as a deadline for countries to hand in their tougher emission reduction plans in order to meet the target of staying under a warming of 1.5C. Corona has also delayed other important UN summits on climate change and biodiversity.

Looking at both climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic also begs the question of why, despite the severity and the high risk that they both pose, they have led to such different political actions. Both the pandemic and climate change are a huge threat to human health worldwide. They share many similarities: both do not respect national borders or political ideologies and require solutions on local, national, and global levels – both require urgent action because of the scale and also the pace of the issue. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to massive shutdowns and government mandates that heavily restrict people’s freedoms and that require massive economic sacrifices. This thus sends the clear message that the safekeeping of public health takes precedence over economic growth. All of the aforementioned actions were achieved in a very short span of time, showing not only that we are capable of acting quickly, but we are also able to radically shift our priorities. So, why is it that we are not able to do the same when it comes to the issue of climate change? If global emissions continue on their current trajectory, by 2100 our climate is expected to be responsible for 1.5 million deaths annually. Behavioral scientists explain the difference in responses due to human characteristics. Humans are short-term thinkers, which does not result in rapid climate actions, since climate change is a long-term problem. Thus, due to the threat seeming distant, there is a greater reluctance to act. Climate change has also been discussed for the last few decades, leading to a desensitization towards the climate crisis. In contrast, the pandemic is a novel situation, which leads to rapid action, as humans often react faster to new and uncertain threats. Nevertheless, COVID-19 has shown that we are capable of responding to crises globally, despite our many different political views, while also revealing that we are capable of putting the safety of human lives above continued economic growth. Thus, hopefully, the pandemic will enable us to realize that effective action regarding climate change, an undeniable threat to the safety of millions,  can be enacted regardless of possible economic outcomes.    

Edited by Mia Black, artwork by Mira Kurtovic