Covid-19 pandemic has been a mixed blessing for the climate

28 Juni 2020

As people were being forced to stay home with nationwide lockdowns across much of the world earlier this year to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, our collective carbon footprint started to drop. In April daily global carbon emissions dropped by 17%.

That was good news. The trouble is that the very next month atmospheric levels of CO2 reached their highest monthly average ever recorded in May: 417.1 parts per million.

The reason is that most of the CO2 we have already pumped into the planet’s atmosphere is there for the long haul and short-term dips in extra emissions won’t make much of a difference. Our carbon emissions will need to be reduced permanently if we are to rein in climate change.

Meanwhile, the global economy has been in suspended animation for months, but it won’t stay there forever. As the global economy has taken a massive hit in the wake of the pandemic, the governments of many countries will be keen to restart their economies at full speed ahead, which is bound to lead to high carbon emissions.

“Most demand for products and services will be deferred rather than destroyed, so when the entire economy is safely reopened, there will be a massive rebound in economic activity, likely even surpassing the activity prior to the outbreak,” write the authors of a new study, published in the journal Joule.

That is why the pandemic has been a mixed blessing. For one thing, much tighter finances from global economic recession will also impact the rate of investments in clean energy for the worse. “This global crisis will certainly defer investments in clean energy,” says lead author Kenneth Gillingham, an associate professor of environmental and energy economics at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

“Overall clean energy jobs dropped by almost 600,000 by the end of April, as investments in energy efficiency and renewable generation have plummeted,” explains Marten Ovaere, a postdoctoral researcher at the same institution who was a co-author of the paper. “If that were to continue it could significantly set back the push toward a clean energy future.”

Then there is the issue of plastic pollution.

The pandemic has worsened the already acute state of plastic pollution with large amounts of disposable plastic masks, gloves and other items being discarded on a daily basis. Already back in early March, as the pandemic was just beginning to make its impacts felt, a pronounced uptick was observed in places such as Hong Kong in the amount of discarded surgical masks and other items littering beaches and other areas.

That said, the pandemic has also led to positive changes in the lifestyles of millions of people across the world and has showed us that meaningful large-scale action on the environment is possible. If, once the pandemic is over, we get back down to business in a cleaner and greener way in coming months and years, we can make a world of difference for the planet and ourselves.

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