The coronavirus will result in one of the largest declines in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in history. This is the biggest emission reduction in more than seventy years. In a mere matter of weeks COVID-19 has done what we have been trying to do for decades. This modern day plague has also dealt a significant blow to the fossil fuel industry and thousands of extraction and production companies are expected to become insolvent due to the oil crash of 2020. Any decrement in fossil fuel infrastructure increases the likelihood that we can keep temperatures below critical thresholds.
According to data commissioned by the Guardian, restrictions associated with the coronavirus will cut carbon emissions from fossil fuels by 2.5bn tonnes in 2020 or 5 percent. Restrictions on travel, work and industry are expected to cut millions of tonnes of coal, billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic metres of gas from the global energy system in 2020.
The combination of less industry, less cars and less air traffic is expected to produce an emissions reduction of at least 5 percent this year. This is five times the emissions reduction we saw during the great recession of 2008. This is a bold step in the right direction and close to the levels of emissions reduction we need to keep temperatures from surpassing the upper threshold temperature limits. As reported by UNEP, the UN Gap report indicates that emissions will need to fall by an average of 7.6 percent each year to stay within acceptable limits.
Our experience with the coronavirus buoys hopes for climate action. The emissions reductions we have seen from the shutdown definitively proves that humans activity drives emissions. The reduction in GHGs reinforces the message of scientists who have been warning governments to lower emissions for decades. The COVID-19 pandemic makes the point that although humans do not respond to things they don’t directly feel and experience they have demonstrated that they are very good at responding to immediate threats. Another lesson we have learned is that governments are capable of acting quickly.
Prior to the pandemic we were rushing headlong to disaster, burning through our carbon budgets and rapidly running out of time. We have been forced to pause and this gives us a chance to consider the greatest looming catastrophe humanity has ever faced. The coronavirus gives us a small foretaste of what a world ravaged by climate change will be like. Such a world will not only include supply chain disruptions, we can also expect to see more outbreaks of deadly diseases, devastating extreme weather events and a host of apocalyptic chain reactions.
This pandemic offers us a glimmer of hope. By captivating global attention we are being forced to reexamine our economies are consider stimulus packages that could help us curtail the climate crisis. As always there are caveats to our economic and energy predicaments. While low oil prices are killing the fossil fuel industry, low prices also make dirty energy more attractive compared to renewable sources of energy. Most importantly we need to be weary of efforts to resume our pre-coronavirus economy. We will never be able to address the climate crisis if we return to business as usual. If the rebound after the great recession is any indication we have reason to be concerned as emissions increased by more than 5 percent after 2009. We are already seeing evidence that emissions are increasing again in China after a short-term reduction of 25 percent.
This is precisely what worries Pierre Friedlingstein, chair in mathematical modelling of the climate system at the University of Exeter in southwest England. “Even if there is a decline in emissions in 2020, let’s say 10 per cent or 20 percent, it’s not negligible, it’s important, but from a climate point of view, it would be a small dent if emissions go back to pre-Covid-19 crisis levels in 2021,” Friedlingstein said
The coronavirus is a wake-up call that affords us an opportunity to retool our economies. While it is tragic that hundreds of thousands of people had to die to get us to take notice, it would be even more tragic if we go back to where we were and they die in vain.