Impact of Coronavirus on environment and climate

Empty streets, suspended traffic, throttled factories: what sounds horrible for our global economy might be good news for our environment and climate. The corona crisis suddenly reduced environmental impacts and above all the emission of pollutants.

People all around the world are stuck at home, global air traffic is restricted and vehicle manufacturers such as VW, BMW and Daimler temporarily shut down their plants. Optimists might say that in addition to the bad health consequences of the Covid 19 pandemic and economic downturns, there could also be good sides.

Greenhouse gas emission decrease over China

Pollution monitoring satellites of NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) have detected significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China.

According to the experts, “There is evidence that the change is at least partly related to the economic slowdown following the outbreak of coronavirus.”

„While the Lunar New Year may have played a role in the recent dropoff, researchers believe the decrease is more than a holiday effect or weather-related variation. In a preliminary analysis, NASA researchers compared NO2 values detected by OMI in 2020 with the average amounts detected at this time of year from 2005-2019. In 2020, NO2 values in eastern and central China were significantly lower (from 10 to 30 percent lower) than what is normally observed for this time period.”, the experts explain.

Analysts of the  Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air also observed drastically reduction of the China’s CO2 emissions by about one quarter.

“All told, the measures to contain coronavirus have resulted in reductions of 15% to 40% in output across key industrial sectors. This is likely to have wiped out a quarter or more of the country’s CO2 emissions over the past four weeks, the period when activity would normally have resumed after the Chinese new-year holiday.”

Global awakening of nature

Significant falls in nitrogen dioxide, were also recorded in New York and Northern Italy, which is primary related to reduced car traffic and industrial activity. 

The effects of coronavirus pandemic further led to the unexpected prevailing of nature, in form of undisturbed ecosystems, cleaner waters and bluer skies.

At the same time, experts warn, that air pollution is even likely to increase coronavirus death rate.

“The health damage inflicted on people by long-standing air pollution in cities is likely to increase the death rate from coronavirus infections”, according to the experts.

Strengthening our environment and protecting the climate could therefore be a great way to fight the virus! Only now do many people seem to understand how important an intact nature, fresh air and healthy nutrition are for our well-being.

Long-term corona effect on nature and climate

In the case of long-term climate forecasts, on the other hand, some experts fear that the corona effect could be negative: the virus crisis could poses threat to climate action and displace the climate crisis from the political agenda.

The VICE NEWS report in an article that China “is already planning to relax environmental rules to allow Chinese factories idled during the epidemic to get back up to speed” and predicts that “China’s Air Quality Is About to Get a Whole Lot Worse Because of Coronavirus”.

The article further states, that “experts have been warning that the virus could lead to an increase in pollution after the pandemic passes as countries try to make up for losses from production slowdowns during the pandemic”. Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist and the director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, which advocates for climate action, is quoted: “When the Chinese economy does recover, they are likely to see an increase in emissions in the short term to sort of make up for lost time, in terms of production,”.

“Experts warn that not only will emissions ramp up to make up for lost ground, but the pandemic could stifle long-term action to combat the climate crisis. Companies are less likely to pony up for investments that would reduce their carbon footprints during a recession, and an economic slump could reduce investments in green tech.”

Jillian Ambrose reports for The Guardian “The coronavirus health crisis may lead to a slump in global carbon emissions this year but the outbreak poses a threat to long-term climate action by undermining investment in clean energy, according to the global energy watchdog.”.

“The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects the economic fallout of Covid-19 to wipe out the world’s oil demand growth for the year ahead, which should cap the fossil fuel emissions that contribute to the climate crisis.”, she writes.

“There is nothing to celebrate in a likely decline in emissions driven by economic crisis because in the absence of the right policies and structural measures this decline will not be sustainable,” said Fatih Birol, IEA’s executive director.

“We should not allow today’s crisis to compromise the clean energy transition,” Birol said. “We have an important window of opportunity. 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.”

“If the right policies are put in place there are opportunities to make the best of this situation,” Birol says.

In an article by DW Amy Jaffe, director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Energy Security and Climate Change program wants us to learn to localize and says “the virus is prompting us to change our habits in ways that could make a longer-term contribution to climate protection — working from home, video conferencing, working shorter weeks or staggering office hours to reduce traffic.”

“Companies might also conclude that what’s good for the planet — localized production — is a sensible way to protect their supply chains from all kinds of risk, such as extreme weather events linked to climate change.”

“While recessions are good for the climate, they’re terrible for people — particularly those who already benefit least from our fossil-fuel economies. Among the hardest hit by China’s coronavirus response are low-waged migrant workers already living precarious lives.”

Coronavirus has “highlighted how closely interconnected our global community is” and how “intimately greenhouse gas emissions are tied to economic growth”.

Recent weeks proof that “when a crisis is deemed urgent enough, the world can act big and fast” and many people urge that the current mission to “flatten the curve” should not only be a priority for Covid-19 cases, but also for the Keeling Curve of the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. 

“If we truly treat climate as an emergency, as we are treating this pandemic as an emergency, we have to have a similar level of international coordination,” says Jon Erickson, an ecological economist at the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute who studies emerging infectious disease vectors in relation to climate change.

“This is an opportunity to talk about planned economic stabilization, and talk about planned degrowth,” Erickson says. “The economy will contract, it will hit limits, it will crash, it will collapse on its own. That’s going to hurt the most.”

By Stefan Simon for COLLECTIVE GREEN