Blog by Grace Carroll
Talking about climate change during a pandemic feels a bit like crying at a film when the cinema is on fire. Nobody wants to hear it right now. But to ignore environmental concerns would be a serious miscalculation, not least because of the intricate ways in which the COVID-19 outbreak and human impact on the environment are connected. We’ve received loads of questions about the relationship between the pandemic and the environment, ranging from 'How do environmental issues lead to outbreaks like COVID-19?' to 'What is the environmental impact of the economic stimulus for COVID-19'? You can find insightful answers to all these questions and more here. Today, however, I want to address one question in particular, something a lot of us heard during the height of the lockdown and are continuing to hear today: 'What have been the positive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic?'
This question, for obvious reasons, immediately gives me pause. How could a million deaths worldwide be considered a positive, for the environment or in any way whatsoever?1 But instead of dismissing the question, I want to interrogate it today by asking two important questions – how has the COVID-19 outbreak affected the environment, and can these affects really be considered positive at all?
'Emissions fell due to changes in behaviour'
This statement is irrefutably true, and says a lot about what we can all achieve when we stop driving cars to work every day or flying across the world three times a year. On the 19th May, in the middle of global lockdowns, the Guardian reported a 'dramatic fall in global carbon emissions', as they plunged by 17% of the previous year’s total2. Likewise, the initial impact on the oil industry was tremendous: The Independent reported on the 21st April that oil producers in Wyoming 'were willing to pay someone 19 cents a barrel to take it off their hands', meaning that oil was less than worthless.3
However, we should not be fooled by these numbers. To begin with, the 17% drop in global emissions back in May was nowhere near as close as we need to be to the tenets of the Paris agreement, which requires emissions to 'fall to net zero by mid-century or soon after'.4 This means that even a global pandemic, that forced all of us to stay at home, is not enough to have a lasting impact on the environment – particularly as these 'positive effects' only occurred over a relatively short period of time. Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that as more and more countries start to open up again, emissions are, predictably, rising with frightening speed: evidence suggests that more people are using cars than ever, and 'a particular fear among climate experts is that emissions could rebound higher than pre-lockdown levels if people desert public transport in favour of cars, and a trend towards greater cycling and walking fails to stick'.5 This seems consistent with past economic slowdowns which didn't change the overall upward trend of emissions.
Ultimately, the evidence now suggests that behavioural changes as a result of COVID-19 can only have a negligible effect on overall carbon emissions – 'the experience of the crisis so far has shown that changes in behaviour by individuals – such as not flying, working from home and driving less – can only go part of the way needed to cut emissions, as even the lockdown measures left the bulk of emission sources intact'.4 The question we received on our website was asked on the 6th of May, when it looked as though emissions may be decreasing. However, this was clearly a temporary fix that should by no means be classified as a 'positive effect', especially when the initial drop in emissions was so negligible. But could the pandemic be positive in a more subtle way – revealing the capabilities of worldwide governments for instigating meaningful policies?
'Governments can’t ignore the climate crisis now'
On the surface, this claim makes a lot of sense. The COVID-19 crisis, unlike the climate emergency, has been hard for some to ignore - does the speed and effectiveness of the worldwide response demonstrate what can be done about the environment, in a 'gotcha!' moment to politicians who have repeatedly denied their ability to make change? Well, yes and no. There is certainly plenty of scholarship on the issue, which asks the important question 'why hasn’t the world responded to climate change with anything resembling the speed and political will it has marshalled to battle the coronavirus?'6 As one study from Oxford University notes, fiscal recovery packages post-COVID-19 could 'either kill these two birds with one stone – setting the global economy on a pathway towards net-zero emissions – or lock us into a fossil system from which it will be nearly impossible to escape', and it is up to the worlds’ governments to ensure they do the former.7
Herein of course, lies the problem. Governments remain frustratingly unwilling to take further action on climate change, especially those that need to do it the most. Despite calls from organisations such as Greenpeace and the parliamentary Committee for Climate Change to ensure financial recovery from COVID-19 is as green as possible, Boris Johnson has continued to put out a vague response about 'sustainability' without much in the way of tangible goals.8 Furthermore, the work of those climate activists who dedicate their time towards lobbying the government has greatly suffered from the impact of the pandemic. The UN’s climate summit COP26 has been moved to 2021, when we are fast running out of time to address climate issues and groups such as Extinction Rebellion who rely on large-scale public actions have had to stay at home, reducing their overall impact. Read more on how the pandemic has affected climate change action internationally.
'COVID-19: What is it good for?'
Of course, nobody is really arguing that the global pandemic is a 'good thing'. The simple fact that the majority of us, no matter our economic situation or nationality, have been in some way affected by the crisis means that its tragedy is not lost on most people. But we need to be very careful throwing around the term 'positive effects', whether that be pointing to incremental and temporary changes to carbon emissions, or spouting vague platitudes about the earth 'healing'. To begin with, these effects are temporary at best and non-existent at worst – exaggerating their positivity feels like a somewhat glib attempt to find light in the darkness at the risk of dishonesty. In the process, the real conversation about climate change risks being pushed aside, with the vague assumption that COVID-19 will somehow 'fix' these issues for us.
We cannot let a few negligible environmental benefits blind us to the harsh realities of COVID-19: and we can’t let the conversation around the pandemic eliminate the climate conversation altogether. Let’s move forward with a nuanced approach towards both issues, acknowledging their points of difference and convergence, and continue to struggle towards a better world for our generation.
1 Google statistics, accurate 10:38 04/07/2020
2 Harvey, F, ‘Lockdowns trigger dramatic fall in global carbon emissions’ (The Guardian, May 2020)
3 Chapman, B, ‘Could the coronavirus be the beginning of the end for the oil industry?’ (Independent, April 2020)
4 Harvey, F, ‘Lockdowns trigger dramatic fall in global carbon emissions’ (The Guardian, May 2020)
5 Quinn, B, ‘As UK lockdowns ease, fears grow of return to pre-pandemic crime and pollution levels’ (The Guardian, June 2020)
6 DeRidder, K, ‘Covid-19 vs Climate Change: What Can We Learn?’ (The Asia Foundation, June 2020)
7 Various, ‘Will COVID-19 fiscal recovery packages accelerate or retard progress on climate change?’ (Oxford Review of Economic Policy, May 2020)
8 Harvey, F ‘Boris Johnson under pressure to ensure green recovery in UK’ (The Guardian, June 2020)
9 Stockwell, B, ‘Covid-19: the eco-fascist’s panacea?’ (Medium, April 2020)
Photo by Jonathan Cooper on Unsplash