The Environment During Quarantine – Issue 22

How COVID-19 Recovery Will Determine our Future Climate

Carbon Dioxide emissions are down, flight activity has dropped, and resource demand has slowed. As tempting as it is to celebrate cleaner skies, clearer waterways, and “nature healing itself”, quarantine is not ultimately helping us fight climate change. In fact, it could make things harder. When economic recovery takes priority, environmental preservation tends to be kicked to the backseat. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

Emerging from the pandemic, one thing we know for sure is that when industrial activity declines, climate pollution also drops. It’s proven that the global economy still deeply depends on fossil fuels. A temporary dip in China’s carbon dioxide emissions in February alone accounted for the emissions produced by the entire state of New York in one year. Estimations predict that the reduction in air pollution saved tens of thousands of lives as a result. In New Zealand, CO2 emissions reportedly almost halved, and air pollution dropped by three quarters during lockdown as road traffic decreased. These results are promising, indicating that air quality can drastically improve practically overnight if given the change. But…

Road traffic will inevitably return. Production is guaranteed to continue. In retaliation for the lull in industrial activity, the likelihood is that emission reductions in China among many other countries will rebound and even multiply as industries attempt to make up for lost time, virtually evaporating any positive changes observed from lockdowns. 

New policies aimed at stimulating economic growth will likely see governments supporting the classic money-makers like coal, steel, and cement, at the expense of environmental agendas. As economic activity races back to pre-COVID levels to account for financial losses, there is no denying that emissions will ramp up again. The global recession could see supply chains lock up into our old, tired ways, relying on non-renewable energy and exploiting finite resources. What’s more, the delays, gaps, and derailments we’re seeing in climate research, climate summits, and public protests has been dulling the conversation around the climate emergency as fears for health and finance take precedence.

But as bleak as that may sound, there is strong grounding for an alternative future and hopeful thinking. The good that we can take from the pandemic is that we’ve seen what’s important. In times of virulent threats – just as in times of global heating – what matters are the basics. Our health. Our family. The safety and protection of our communities. As much as we may wear masks, sanitise our hands, and social distance for practical purposes, what those gestures ultimately boil down to are respect and compassion. We’re able to make big changes, and make big changes fast if our communities are threatened. If we can approach climate change with that same motivation – with empathy for those that are most vulnerable, including coastal communities, areas in poverty, and the world’s future generations – we really do have a brilliant chance of resisting anything which threatens that which we hold dearest.

Be wary that “quarantine forced humanity indoors and thus nature rebounded” is an incorrect, over-simplified lesson to take from the pandemic. While we should celebrate the wins we’ve seen, technically speaking, this message reinforces beliefs that humans are a separate entity from the environment and that the only solution for nature’s revival is our absence, which is completely untrue. Social media has spread this harmful “leave nature alone and everything returns to normal” theory. When it comes to ecological restoration, whether that encompasses bringing back forests, restoring waterways to cleaner states, or returning animal wildlife to grasslands, we can never get things back to 100% the way they used to be. Human help is often necessary to restore these environments to a near-natural condition, whether that be through pest trapping, native tree plantings, or educating our future generations so they know to nurture these environments for long-term impact. Just “leaving it alone” won’t be enough. Humans are part of natural ecosystems, not separate from it. We don’t need to disappear to create lasting change. In fact, we’re needed here to make it happen.

We’ve seen that we ARE capable of reducing our transport, working less and working remotely, reducing demand for unnecessary goods, and reducing oil use in general. Those are positive changes we can maintain, but more importantly, we need the big players to help us out. Meaningful change cannot be created by one year of living indoors, and it cannot be created by citizens alone. Governments drive over 70% of worldwide energy investments, which is why our vote holds more importance than ever. And even if every citizen on the planet lived more sustainably, the pandemic reminds us that the fate of all of us that responsibility for climate change lies not in our hands, but in the hands of governments and industry. There’s no question about it, we need to decarbonise the global economy.

Governments can use this new era to set game-changing standards; removing funding for fossil fuels, raising taxes on carbon dioxide emissions, and spurning business-as-usual approaches in favour of completely new structural changes. The fluctuating price of oil alone could motivate companies to invest in renewable energy sources with help from government funding, a push for retraining workers into clean energy sectors, investments in public transportation and large-scale environmental restoration projects. It’s a win-win; economic growth paired with an accelerated transition to clean energy. New policies could help us turbocharge to a more sustainable world.  

We can’t afford to be short-sighted in our economic recovery. It’s tempting to fall back into unsustainable, business-as-usual practices, sure, but new financial aid legislation must address environmental prerogatives if we are to have a chance (a great example is the proposed EU Green Deal for a climate-neutral continent by 2050). The pandemic may have irreversibly scarred our generation, but we can use this as a wake-up call for the greater good. Humans don’t like change, sure, but we can use this time to dismantle the old system that got us into this scenario, and build a far better one. It’s time to let go of doomed capitalist ideas and take on a renewed, more innovative way of thinking. If we can shift that sense of urgency created by COVID toward saving ourselves from climate change, we may not completely reverse the damage that’s been done, but we have a real, tangible chance for a better future.