The Current

COVID-19 pandemic response temporarily combating CO2 emissions, but systemic change needed, experts urge

An American environmentalist says the drop in carbon emissions seen due to the coronavirus pandemic counter-measures will not be a long-term solution to climate change and could "come back to bite us harder." 

'We don't want a Great Depression to be the reason for our carbon emissions drop,' scientists say

A man wears a protective mask as he stands near the CCTV building, Beijing, as pollution during rush hour covers the city's central business district on Feb. 13. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

An American environmentalist says the drop in carbon emissions seen due to the coronavirus pandemic counter-measures will not be a long-term solution to climate change and could "come back to bite us harder." 

In late February, climate researchers measured a decrease of about 25 per cent in China's CO2 emissions after the nation locked down entire cities, emptied highways, grounded airplanes, shut factories and confined millions to their homes in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. 

"In terms of lockdowns, you really can't have [them] in any given society in the absence of…  an immediate emergency. The climate situation is a longer term emergency," Bill McKibben, founder of climate advocacy group, told The Current's Matt Galloway.

He says it is "no big surprise" that if a country shuts off its economy, then emissions go down.

But McKibben says there is already evidence the Chinese government is planning to respond to the economic slowdown "with their usual technique" of a huge stimulus in infrastructure spending. Last week, local media reported that seven Chinese provinces have published lists of proposed investment projects in the last two months, with a combined investment of around 25 trillion yuan ($4.9 trillion Cdn).

These satellite images show reduced nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels before, during and after China's New Year holiday for 2019 and 2020. These images reveal less NO2 emitted during the weeks of China's lockdown. (CREA analysis of NASA OMI satellite data)

The last time a similar package was used was amid the 2008 financial crisis. A consequence of the $586-billion US boost was a significant jump in Chinese emissions following the downturn, he said. 

Climate change 'politicized' and 'divisive'

Kerry Bowman, a bioethics and global health professor at the University of Toronto, says the drop in Chinese emissions shows how fast change can come when institutions are "willing to commit" and that the problem of climate change could be "dealt with essentially overnight."

"COVID-19 shows that small changes can have almost immediate effects and we're still not doing them."

McKibben says a similar "whole of the world approach" that is currently being used to combat this pandemic needs to be applied to climate change.

"We can talk all we want about country by country approaches to climate change. And those are important. But look, CO2 travels everywhere, just like the virus."

The reason governments resist similar immediate action against climate change is because environmental measures have become "politicized" and "divisive," according to Bowman.

A South Korean disinfection worker wearing protective clothing sprays anti-septic solution to prevent the coronavirus (COVID-19) spread in a subway station on March 13, in Seoul. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

"One side doesn't trust the other — it's ideological — people question data on everything and we've fallen into this trap in which we do very, very little."

But Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist at Stanford University, says the methods being used by governments to slow the spread of COVID-19 aren't the right strategy. Instead, systematic change is necessary. 

"We don't want a Great Depression to be the reason for our carbon emissions drop. We want efficient and renewable energy to be the reasons so that we can continue to thrive economically," he said. 

He warns that we shouldn't mistake a temporary drop in personal activity with real solutions for climate change.

"People see and people then saw a direct link between action and human survival. So coronavirus and the ozone hole motivate people in ways that the more abstract threats of climate change don't."

'Climate crisis' warrants dire action

The pandemic is also intrinsically linked with environmental issues, Bowman said. 

There is a clear correlation forming between countries that have had significant surges in COVID-19 cases, like China, Iran, South Korea, northern Italy, and poor air quality, he says.

"It's not that the air quality changes the nature of the virus, but it absolutely may affect people's vulnerability to the virus [and] when they pick it up, how their body responds to it."

As of Friday, the number of cases in China and South Korea had begun to stabilize, while infections in Italy and Iran continued to climb, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Global CO2 emissions growth has generally resumed quickly from international crises. (CBC/Global Carbon Project)

More than half of the world's 128,000 people infected have already recovered. Most patients have only mild or moderate symptoms such as a fever or cold, though severe symptoms including pneumonia can occur, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems.

Bowman adds that the suspected source of the outbreak, thought to have come from an infected animal at a market in central Wuhan, is also being linked to climate related causes.

"You have all these stressed species, many of which are wild, piled on top of each other, trading viruses. On top of that, environmental degradation, including climate change, is forcing more and more species into smaller and smaller areas." 

The "climate crisis" is a more significant problem than coronavirus because an illness can be cured with medication or vaccines while climate change won't be fixed as easily, he said. 

"The amount of people that actually die from air pollution itself on a yearly basis is estimated to be massive," Bowman said. WHO found that in 2019 over seven million deaths were a result of exposure to air pollution. 

'Respect the physical nature of the world'

McKibben says he is hopeful that this "weird and difficult moment in human history" will teach people to pay attention to scientists and take their concerns seriously. 

"What they tell you isn't convenient. They're telling you this for a reason because they know what they're talking about, in just the same way they say, 'Look, you can't keep pouring carbon into the atmosphere.'" 

He notes we live in a "very physical world" and the outbreak is a reminder of how easy it is to forget that we "spend our lives staring at screens" and living in "bubbles."

"There's no way, despite the best efforts of President Trump, to spin a microbe or to persuade a virus to compromise, anymore than there is to politicize a CO2 molecule. So maybe this will remind us to respect the physical nature of the world and the limits that it imposes."

Flooding affects homes and businesses in the village of Snaith after the River Aire bursts its banks on March 2 in England. Bill McKibben, founder of climate advocacy group, said he is hopeful the pandemic will teach people to pay attention to scientists and take their concerns over climate change seriously. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Following the pandemic, perhaps we will "re-evaluate" whether the satisfaction that we want as human beings comes mostly from contact with other people or from the "consumption of stuff," McKibben said. 

"If that message sinks in then there might be some real benefit for the larger, more enduring crisis that we face in the planet's atmosphere."

Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Idella Sturino.