"The resilience we have shown thus far, from all levels in the community, will be required from us again over the coming years, to turn the tide on global warming".
COVID-19 and The Climate Transition: An Uncertain Future.
Words Carl Peters
Illustration Zoe Alice
You would be forgiven for forgetting that three months ago we collectively witnessed the devastating effect of Australia’s bushfires, some of the largest in their history. Climate Change was a topic on the top of everyone’s agenda and Greta Thunberg seemed to appear on every newsfeed, paper or magazine that you looked in. For the moment, and unsurprisingly so, climate change has taken a backseat whilst we come to terms with the global pandemic and deal with one disaster at a time.
With just over two million globally confirmed cases and almost three billion people in quarantine, COVID-19 has found its way into every aspect of our daily lives. Airlines and cruise ships have been grounded, fewer cars are on the road, more people are working from home, whilst a number of industries have cut production and come to a halt. All of which has led to a rapid fall in global emissions.
But what does this mean for climate change?
With a complete shutdown in most countries, emissions have dropped since the beginning of the outbreak. Indeed, with the direction things are heading, it’s likely that 2019 could be the highest recorded year for greenhouse gas emissions that we’ll see in our lifetimes.
Despite an initial fall in emissions, there are some concerns over how this could impact long-term climate change efforts. With the climate transition fundamentally being an investment transition, there is unease over whether businesses will have the capacity to prioritise green investments over the coming years, with much of their funds being diverted towards short-term survival. Likewise, and rightfully so, public policy towards climate change could also take a backburner as governments prioritise public health needs first, as well as the stimulation of the economy. Supply chain issues across the globe may also halt manufacturing and delay the building of new and green infrastructure, projects which are vital if we hope to limit the level of warming to 1.5 – 2°C.
The effect that the virus has on climate efforts will therefore largely depend on the extent of the impact and the types of stimulus’s economies choose to undertake. Many are already beginning to express the need for a ‘green’ and sustainable recovery, seeing this as an opportunity to provide much needed investments in renewable technologies.
However, in forcing us to adapt to life under isolation, the crisis may have inadvertently presented us with opportunities to adopt more climate friendly behaviour going forward. Businesses have already begun to take advantage of existing online tech, allowing them to effectively host meetings and conferences from their own homes, without the need to travel domestically or internationally. Companies are being shown that there are realistic substitutes for face-to-face meetings which may help cut unnecessary flights and travel once this is over. Fortunately, there is an overlap here between doing something beneficial for the environment and cutting company costs, always helpful when trying to get business owners onside.
With improving online connectivity, employees may also find they’re given more opportunities to work from home and cut the daily commute. It may even be that people find they’ve enjoyed spending time at home with their families and see this as an opportunity to change their work schedule post-lockdown. As a student, albeit a few more distractions, I’ve found working from home to be just as productive, and the extra hours of sleep haven’t hurt either. Evidently however, this isn’t the case for everyone and only applies to those with a safe place of living. Not allowing people to leave their homes can create a whole suite of other problems, as shown by the recent doubling of domestic abuse cases in the UK.
What lessons can we take?
With the wide-spread suffering caused from the virus, as well as the economic burden, it’s important to be clear that this is not the precedent the climate challenge should be based off and any short-term environmental benefits we take from the crisis should be heeded with caution. To create a future which we all can sustainably benefit from, investments in renewable technologies will need to be rapidly scaled up to provide green energy and services for a growing population.
Nonetheless, the response to the pandemic has shown the world what our individuals, businesses and governments are capable of when push comes to shove. It is exactly these types of actions that so many have been calling for from the climate fight for so long. Bar some notable exceptions, governments have been quick and decisive in implementing policies to control the spread of the disease. Providing support for struggling businesses, enforcing nationwide lockdowns and shutting down industries, actions unheard of in our lifetimes. Businesses and individuals have also shown their willingness to change their behaviour for the benefit of the community by staying indoors and distancing themselves from friends and families.
Climate change is at its very nature, a collective-action problem and recent events could perhaps provide a look into what is to come. The challenges we are to face will transcend national and international boundaries, arguably making this one of the most significant long-term threats to our species we have yet to encounter.
Indeed, the length of time may be where the crux of the issue lies. By our very nature, we are more willing to commit to changing our behaviour if there are immediate and measurable impacts to our actions. If not, it’s easy for these to be put to the back our of minds and tell ourselves we’ll come back to it at a later date.
It goes without saying that the focus of our attention should be on the immediate threats of COVID-19. But the resilience we have showed thus far, from all levels in the community, will be required from us again over the coming years to turn the tide on global warming.