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3 things I learned about climate change and COVID19

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Coronavirus disease or COVID19 has sickened more than a million people and put countries under lockdowns, financial markets to spin, and to many of us to confinement, experiencing family editions of the big-brother reality show.

COVID19 crisis has shown us how fragile is our existence on the planet and the analogy with climate change emergency is evident.

For the past weeks, I found myself overwhelmed reading the extensive coverage that media is dedicating to this topic.

That’s why, I decided to summarize 3 things I learned about climate change and coronavirus to help others reflect on the subject.

COVID19 reduced carbon emissions, is this good news for climate change?

Yes, it is good news !! 

A third of the global population is under lockdown to slow down the spread of the disease. The lack of industrial and economic activity is reducing countries energy consumption and thus pollution and carbon emissions released by the use of fossil fuels. 

Airborne Nitrogen Dioxide Plummets Over China - earthobservatory.nasa.gov
Airborne Nitrogen Dioxide Plummets Over China – earthobservatory.nasa.gov

In China, Carbon Brief estimates that there’s been a 25% drop in emissions of CO2 in February vs 2019. Besides, 77,000 lives could have been saved in China just by two months of air pollution reduction (link). In Europe, NO2 levels went 24 % down, 56% in Madrid, and 40% in Lisbon (link ).

Globally, carbon emissions could fall by more than 5% this year, the first decline since a 1.4% reduction after the 2008 financial crisis.

“The lives saved due to the pollution reductions (in China) are roughly 20x the number of lives that have been directly lost to the virus,”

Earth Systems Professor Marshall Burke from Stanford University scientist.

But… 

…we shouldn’t celebrate emissions reductions due to lack of activity. Furthermore, the reality is that it is too early to know if the crisis will drive long term reductions in emissions and air pollution. 

On the one hand

Experts predict that emissions will ramp up to make up for lost production following patterns from previous crises.

Drop and Rebound effect that Past crisis had on Global CO2 emissions
Drop and Rebound effect that Past crisis had on Global CO2 emissions

Besides, the COVID19 pandemic could catalyze an economic crisis that chokes long-term action to combat the climate change. How?

  • Governments could roll back environmental standards and rush to create stimulus packages which subsidize fossil-fuel-heavy industries to accelerate the recovery.
  • Lowering the price of oil which reduces the attractiveness for energy efficiency, renewable energy or electric vehicles. Current lack of demand and a price war has led to oil prices sinking to a 20-year low.
  • Delaying the momentum around clean technologies such as wind and solar installations, batteries or electric cars due to disruptions in their supply chains.
  • Replacing climate concerns in the minds of the public.

On the other hand

Creating “green stimulus” packages could be the best opportunity we have ever had to accelerate the inevitable shift to low-carbon and increasingly affordable energy and transport systems that will bring long-term economic, environmental and health benefits. 

Four examples on how to design these stimuli packages can be found in this analysis from Michael Liebreich, BloombergNEF founder.

“Compared to economic stimulus packages of the past we have much cheaper renewable technologies, have made major progress in electric vehicles, and there is a supportive financial community for the clean energy transition”

Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency mentioned

Then, low oil prices could be at the same time an opportunity to remove current fossil fuels subsidies, which encourage consumers to waste energy and that accounted $400 billion in 2018 according to IEA, without significantly affecting consumers.

Finally, lockdowns have forced new working-from-home habits that limit commuting and business travel. Universities and schools are moving classes online, companies are implementing telecommuting infrastructure and major conferences are going virtual. I wonder if next UN COP26 could be mainly done remote following the example of The Climate Group Climate Week NYC ‘virtual’ event.

Should these new behaviours continue beyond the current global emergency, they will contribute to building a lower-emissions world.

3 Things I learned about climate change and COVID19 video

Is COVID19 prompting more rapid action than climate change?

Yes, it is.

Although in both crises, there is a threat to humanity, in the case of coronavirus there has been a sharp reaction by governments, companies and a change in personal behaviour.

Two reasons:

“It actually hurts because it shows that at the national, or international level if we need to take action we can. So why haven’t we for climate? And not with words, with real actions,”

Donna Green, associate professor at University of New South Wales’s Climate Change Research Centre.

Reason 1. COVID19 and climate change crises operate on different timescales.

COVID19 has put the world upside down in weeks. It required immediate action to avoid an even bigger human catastrophe and it will hopefully vanish in three months according to many forecasts.

Meanwhile, climate change for many people not on the front lines feels still like a mild and far-off problem in place and time. Still, it will eventually become hard and evident making life on earth impossible.

Reason 2. CORONAVIRUS and climate change are not perceived as the same level of tangible risk.

The coronavirus is infecting friends, neighbours, family members around us and is the undisputed source of their illness.

On the one hand, climate crisis is a bigger absolute threat than COVID19. 500,000 deaths per year by 2050 due to climate change (Lancet study). Furthermore, we need to add the four Million current annual deaths due to air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels.

On the other hand, climate change poses dangers through pollution, fires, floodings, droughts. These dangers are more complex to relate by many to carbon emissions released by human activity.

Deaths due to climate change by 2050
Image: The Atlas

But…

…there is something that has changed in the last few weeks.

Coronavirus has lead the public to trust in the value of science and the role that Governments play in solving major problems.

Besides, there is a greater understanding of the fragility of our way of life in a way that clearly can apply to climate change.

“why were we all taken by such surprise? It’s not as though the warning signs weren’t there.”

Fiona Reynolds, Principles for Responsible Investment CEO

Acceptance of scientific consensus may help to accelerate the process navigated by countries and individuals during such crises:

Denial (a hoax)-> downplaying the risk -> questioning the measures to fight it -> meaningful slow response once the threat is immediate

Are we going to see corporates rolling back climate change efforts?

Yes, we might.

Such economic crisis will add pressure on industries in the midst of massive transformations such as auto, airlines or tourism.

Companies struggling through a global recession may focus on critical business activities and less in reducing their carbon footprints.

But…

In the medium term, most corporates and investors understanding the financial consequences of ignoring major global risks like COVID19 outbreak will implement forward-looking scenarios related to climate change like TCFD.

These scenarios will allow them to identify major risks and opportunities to deliver value to the triple bottom line profit, people and planet and thus to secure the long-term sustainability of their businesses.

Forward-looking scenario analysis like TCFD to help companies become resilient against a crisis
Forward-looking scenario analysis like TCFD to help companies become resilient against a crisis (read my article here)

Besides, this time for reflection may lead companies to realign their sustainability programs to become more action-driven against climate change, water crisis or waste generation.

Furthermore, I recommend you to read or watch my article about sustainability reporting complexity.

Reasons for hope

We are participating in a trial run in global crisis management. Learning how important it is to listen to scientist advice and experiencing that radical changes are possible. Yes, we can!

As countries prepare to restore economies, we have a historic opportunity to create a new world good for people and the planet.

In this new opportunity governments, companies and individuals can choose which role to play.

I choose to participate in this decade of climate action, and you?

I want to thank those health professionals, volunteers and rest of basic services for risking their health for keeping our society going on during these difficult moments.

Stay home, stay safe

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1 thought on “3 things I learned about climate change and COVID19”

  1. Margaret E. Maina

    I have been talking about the effects of climate change in the last 3years. Mother Nature has a way of sorting things out when the humans mess with the ecosystems. We may not admit it but Covid-19 will bring down carbon dioxide emmisions and create a balance that Mother Nature wants to have. We either make remedies now or face a very bleak future all of us . This is just another warning. Let us take action now!!!. Margaret Maina. Kenya.

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