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How does COVID-19 Impact the Climate Fight?

By Caleigh Vergeer

This pandemic is an unprecedented event. Thousands of people have died. More have been or are sick. More still are facing unemployment. And everyone is struggling with the isolation, fear, and uncertainty of this time. Needless to say, it sucks. Yet, as death rates have soared from COVID-19, deaths from pollution have dropped across the world. Around the world, air has become cleaner and clearer. Environmental improvements have been a source of hope. But in the long run, what role will COVID-19 play in the climate crisis? What can we learn? Both climate change and COVID-19 are devastating global emergencies that have killed and will kill hundreds of thousands of people, if not more. Both were predicted by scientists. Both require a global response. Both affect everyone, albeit disproportionately. Both have or will completely overturn the way our current society functions. But whether or not this crisis will lead to the prevention of another is yet to be determined. No one can say that COVID-19 is a good thing, but it does offer a view into what our world could be, and it offers a choice about whether or not we are willing to work for that world.

Environmental Improvements

In the short term, COVID-19 has brought about remarkable environmental changes. Stay-at-home orders have reduced carbon emissions and raised awareness about pollution; revealed alternative, greener ways to live; and provided the opportunity to alleviate the effects of COVID-19 while simultaneously slowing climate change.

From a scientific standpoint, the pandemic has reduced industry and travel, which, while devastating economies and leading to widespread unemployment, has also reduced pollution worldwide. China, for example, has seen a whopping 25% decrease in emissions compared to the same four week period last year. This decrease is the equivalent of 200 million tons of carbon dioxide. These dramatic decreases in pollution around the world are not only helping the planet; they are saving lives. According to Marshall Burke, a Stanford assistant professor in earth science, two months alone of this reduced pollution has saved the lives of approximately 4,000 children under the age of 5 and 73,000 adults over the age of 70. Surprised? Unfortunately, pollution on its own kills 7 million people annually.

Additionally, the response to the pandemic has reduced the presence of other harmful particles in the air. PM2.5s, or particulate matter in the atmosphere with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, are particularly detrimental to public health, and they worsen other illnesses. These particles can cause or worsen hypertension, heart disease, difficulty breathing, and diabetes. They weaken the immune system and inflame the lungs and respiratory tract. In the United States, a Harvard study found that counties with even 1 microgram per cubic meter more of PM2.5 had a 15% higher death rate from COVID-19. These particles disproportionately affect people of color, who often live in areas that face the brunt of pollution. This environmental racism contributes to the higher COVID-19 death rates of people of color. Yet, because of stay-in-place, the presence of these particles is also declining. In India, for instance, there has been a 70% decline in PM2.5s and nitrogen dioxide gas in the air. No wonder the Himalayas are more visible, and smog has disappeared from New Delhi. In the words of Simon Birkett, founder and director of Clean Air in London, “There’s a chance to really get people to stop, take a deep breath,” and ask themselves “How was your asthma during this period?” Viewing the matter from a wider perspective, Birkett states that the pandemic, while terrible, is “a catalyst, or a tipping point, which could get us to say ‘Clean air—there’s something special about it.’” The pandemic has shown how a decrease in pollution improves public health; therefore, it has drawn attention to these small but deadly particles that are all too common in our air. Hopefully, it will motivate lawmakers to make clean air a priority and encourage citizens to advocate for it.

The India Gate war memorial in New Delhi

October 17, 2019, versus April 8, 2020, after 21 days of stay-in-place

On a more micro level, COVID-19 has given citizens worldwide the opportunity to examine how they can live more green day-to-day lives. One cannot glance out the window without seeing handfuls of people spaced six feet apart, exploring and enjoying the blossoming spring. Perhaps with this increased appreciation of nature, our society will work harder to conserve our world in all its natural beauty. The pandemic has also challenged individuals to ask themselves what they truly do and do not need. Many schools and workplaces have resorted to virtual resources such as Zoom. These useful virtual calls could lead to changes that will save money and the planet. Not every conference merits flying cross-country. And perhaps governments and businesses will increase their use of teleworking, further reducing the pollution that accompanies commuting to work.

This pandemic has given our world an opportunity to rebuild in a greener, more sustainable way and to replace coal and oil production with renewable energy sources. Coal production in the United States is down 30-45% from last year, and coal has constituted 16.4% of U.S. power this year as opposed to 22.5% from last year. These drops are caused in part by stay-in-place, resulting in terrible effects for workers: coal plants have shut down and production has slowed, and thus, many people have lost their jobs. COVID-19 may lead to the biggest drop in oil demand in world history—a decrease of as many as 10 million barrels of oil a day. Yet the U.S. now has the chance to stop relying on coal for energy and instead rely on renewable energy such as hydroelectric, wind, or solar. Workers are losing their jobs due to stay-at-home orders, and our government needs to provide more support and prioritize returning people to work. But there is incredible potential for new, safer, jobs. We can create green jobs. Just as the New Deal aided the recovery from the Great Depression, jobs creating sustainable infrastructure would help boost the economy and provide work. As the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, said, "Major economies around the world are preparing stimulus packages. A well-designed stimulus package could offer economic benefits and facilitate a turnover of energy capital, which have huge benefits for the clean energy transition."

Environmental Setbacks

These changes have led many to rejoice in the climate “silver lining” of the pandemic. But unfortunately, this view is an oversimplification. The choice of how we recover remains. While the pandemic has improved the climate in the short term and provided opportunities to change our world for the better, it could also lead to devastating environmental setbacks, especially in the United States. The temporary reduction of carbon dioxide is not enough. In the long-term, it may be followed by a growth in pollution because countries may stop prioritizing climate action during recovery.

Unfortunately, the temporary drop in emissions has minimal impact on carbon dioxide levels as a whole. A study from the Scripps Oceanography Institute found that it would take a 10% decline of fossil fuels worldwide for an entire year to show a clear difference in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Only long-term environmental change will mitigate greenhouse gases and prevent the catastrophic effects of climate change.

Additionally, the pandemic may lead to an increase in emissions. China serves as a dangerous example: China has begun to recover, and its pollution levels are as high as before the pandemic even though it has not reopened all of its factories. The drop in demand for coal and oil actually makes this problem worse. Because these energy sources are cheaper, there is less incentive to reduce reliance on them. For example, electric cars are popular in part because they save money on gas, and without that incentive, people may stop purchasing them. When resources are cheap, it is all the easier to waste them. Furthermore, if our government chooses to increase funding and support for these struggling industries (as President Trump tweeted that he would), coal and oil industries could become even stronger.

The Trump administration has led initiatives to relax standards that protect the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency has announced a policy that it will essentially give industries and factories a free pass in times of the coronavirus. The policy states:

The EPA does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance and the entity provides supporting documentation.

These actions are fair given the circumstances, but they give these pollution-emitters dangerous power and could set a dangerous precedent for relaxing environmental standards to help recovery.

Lastly, the pandemic will likely overshadow green initiatives in the works at many levels of society and delay green initiatives to come. Lockdowns have halted or stopped climate research. As for activists, Earth Day plans were canceled, and they have lost mobility. Thankfully, these resilient and passionate groups are finding ways to function online. Post-pandemic, people are sure to fear the contact of public transportation and opt for taking cars instead. Right now, people are relying on single-use plastics for safety reasons and washing their hands incessantly. Many of these measures are indeed wise, but they exemplify that COVID-19 does not always lend itself to environmental improvements.

In terms of governmental plans, the United Nations’ 26th Conference of the Parties Climate Conference was to take place this November but has now been postponed until 2021. Intended to help nations commit to emission-reduction plans, this conference was a critical step. Plans already in place, such as the EU’s Green Deal, a plan to decarbonize by 2050, have faced resistance. For example, Prime Minister Andrej Babis of the Czech Republic proposed that all work on the Green Deal be paused until countries have begun to heal. Luckily, these setbacks have been met with arguments for “intelligent recovery,” but it remains to be seen how many environmental initiatives will be delayed or weakened worldwide.

Ultimately, COVID-19 has given us a taste of how our world can be if we take the vital steps to mitigate climate change and pollution. If we so choose, we can both recover from the pandemic and begin to build a more sustainable, safe, and healthy world. But if we attempt to return to normalcy, knowing things will never be quite the same, and allow the coronavirus to put all environmental action on hold, there will be more deadly disasters to come. We need to respond to climate change at least as proactively as we have responded to COVID-19. For those who say that the Green New Deal is too expensive, we have been able to pour trillions into aid packages. For those who say it is too late, look up at the skies. Communities have mobilized: people have shopped for one another, made masks, and complied with stay-at-home orders to protect themselves and others. Communities have come together, so to speak. Governments across the globe have been able to unite. Hopefully, this kind of solidarity and action will be recycled into the climate fight. Taking decisive action against climate change in the light of COVID-19 is far from easy, but it is what we need to do to save our earth and our lives. Do we really have a choice, after all?


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