It’s not a given that things will be different this time around.
Good news for the climate?
Klassekampen, 3 April 2020
While half the world is sitting at home waiting for the pandemic to pass, the polluting influence of humans has entered a decline. Air pollution disappeared from Beijing in the East to Los Angeles in the West, China's CO2 emissions fell by 25% and the number of flight movements in the world has halved. You may have begun to wonder: is the coronavirus a blessing in disguise for the climate?
Releasing a deadly virus upon the world is, of course, a nonsensical way to save humanity from itself. And yet – because everything is so uncertain and the outlook so ominous, it would be nice if something positive emerged from this situation. As a form of comfort. That all this misery will not have been in vain.
To begin with the air pollution: In China, this has gotten so bad that it claims over a million lives each year, including many elderly people. Researchers at the Norwegian research institute Cicero recently estimated that if the air remained cleaner for a year, the number of deaths would be 5 to 10 percent lower: 50,000 to 100,000 lives.
This reduction in air pollution also has an effect on global warming. Air pollution largely consists of aerosols, small particles in the air that can have a cooling effect by reflecting sunlight and by influencing cloud formation. It is, therefore, possible that it will become warmer locally when the air pollution disappears. Now that the air in China, Europe and the US is actually becoming cleaner, this is an excellent opportunity to determine the influence of aerosols on our climate more accurately. This can lead to new insights to better understand and tackle the climate problem.
One year after the financial crisis, emissions rose again
Global CO2 emissions are also going down. Last time this happened was during the global financial crisis, but this was only a short-lived reprieve. After one year, emissions rose again, even faster than before. A perfect opportunity to tackle the climate problem had passed us by.
Right now, satellite imagery of China show that air pollution is already returning to its previous level. Chinese factories are running overtime to make up for lost sales. The oil industry also wants to get back to business-as-usual as soon as possible – and get stimulus packages on top. It is doubtful that things will turn out differently this time.
With some good will we can see a few signs that a turning point has now been reached: Both in business and education, people have switched en masse to video conferences. Instead of being stuck in traffic in the morning, people now work from the breakfast table. Instead of catching the plane for a half-day meeting, businessmen in suits sit in their living room (but maybe not with their pants on). This not only saves time, but also reduces CO2 emissions because cars and planes remain in garages and airports.
But I sincerely doubt much of this will stick. I recently participated in an online workshop, because the physical meeting in Gothenburg was canceled. Because of the many unknown faces, the conversation remained a bit formal – and I hope that, despite everything, we can still meet in person in the autumn to build up a good cooperation. The best ideas arise in casual conversations, not in large anonymous meetings. Home quarantine emphasizes the huge importance of human contact – not that we can do with less.
Hypothetically, it remains possible for the corona crisis to act as an eye opener, causing people to change their behavior permanently. But it seems unlikely that the majority of the population will suddenly start to live an environmentally friendly lifestyle when all this is over. For example, directly related to the virus outbreak: I think that many men will once again stop washing their hands after a bathroom visit once this crisis is over. If they started doing that to begin with.
The expectation that, on its own, a pandemic can make the world better is a naive thought. In the USA, the EPA has immediately stopped monitoring polluting industries. The low oil price and restrictions due to the virus are halting many wind and solar energy projects, further investments in public transport are at great risk because revenues have evaporated, and the UN has postponed its annual climate summit to 2021. Even grimmer: the Ifema conference center in Madrid, where the annual UN climate summit was held last December, now serves as an emergency hospital.
The corona crisis shows that humanity is capable of a collective effort of unprecedented proportions to tackle an existential threat. We need the same commitment to get rid of the climate problem.
This text first appeared in Klassekampen on 3 April 2020