As a result of isolation, social distancing, and lockdowns, Covid-19 has substantially impacted climate change to an unprecedented extent. Fossil fuel emissions all over the world have drastically plummeted due to the closure of factories, minimal use of airlines, and lack of traffic. Cities with the largest carbon footprint– including New York, Shanghai, Delhi, and Singapore–are now experiencing this phenomenon; however, the crux of the matter is whether this shift in the trend is temporary or whether it is a chance to rectify decades of climate change.
Covid-19 is indisputably a global tragedy of which a reduction in carbon emissions is simply a byproduct of. That being said, while the virus itself poses a temporary threat to civilization, climate change is one that will continue to burden future generations. Aside from this, Covid-19 has halted the discussion of prominent initiatives regarding climate change; at this moment, the most pressing issue is mitigating the virus and its effect on the economy. For instance, Ursula Von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, proposed an initiative that would reduce the European Union’s carbon emissions to zero by 2050, but amid the urgency surrounding the virus, her proposal was postponed. Additionally, the United Nation talks meant to commit countries to climate targets have also been delayed including the COP26 conference in Glasgow. Assuming society recovers from this, what happens with respect to climate change? While it is undeniable that there has been a noticeable regression in the trend, as society recovers, will we recognize and utilize this opportunity, or will we return to the destructive practices of the past?
For reference, in the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the stimulus measures bolstered emissions. With the economy in dire straits, the government’s first responsibility should be to save lives and it is. In a roadmap addressing the climate and post COVID-19 economic crises, the government recognizes that one outcome should not come at the expense of another, meaning that climate change will be considered in the grand scheme. What that means for the environment is uncertain at best. Globally recovering from the economic depression using clean energy is easier said than done.
In the long run, the virus is said to have an adverse effect. The oil-trading firm Trafigura predicts global oil demand dramatically increasing to 10 million barrels a day. The efforts to use clean energy could stagnate because of the lack of funding and the fluctuating global supply chain. With lower expectations of electric car sales and possibly lower oil prices, the post-pandemic world is not looking optimistic. All non-essential work is being stopped, and that includes research flights to the arctic to collect climate data. Countries such as China are not trending toward alleviating climate change any time soon in their stimulus measures.
From the perspective of a realist, it would take a radical approach toward COVID-19 relief to address all the aforementioned issues. It requires a high degree of self-awareness and accountability; however, it is not impossible.
Graphic: Jiah Lee