With around a third of humanity under lockdown due to COVID-19, the world has come grinding to a halt. Factories have been shut and airlines have been grounded as people follow the measures to stay at home to slow the contagion. Satellite images of decreased pollution levels above China and Italy, amongst other countries, have sparked climate scientists to quantify the impact this pandemic may have on our environment.
“I wouldn’t be shocked to see a 5 percent or more drop in carbon dioxide emissions this year, something not seen since the end of World War Two,” Rob Jackson, chair of the Global Carbon Project and a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University in California, told Reuters in an email.
“Neither the fall of the Soviet Union nor the various oil or savings and loan crises of the past 50 years are likely to have affected emissions the way this crisis is,” he continued.
However, the observed reductions have come about under extraordinary circumstances and not because of structural change. Therefore, climate scientists expect this emissions dip to be short-lived and return to the levels seen before COVID-19 took hold of the planet.
“The physical reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, caused by the widespread industrial and transport shutdown in response to the virus, has been widely noted,” Professor Chris Hilson, professor of Law, director of the Reading Centre for Climate and Justice, University of Reading, explained. “This is, however, a temporary, one-off win, which is also true of the equally widely observed co-benefits such as cleaner air (notably in Chinese cities) and water (such as in Venice’s canals, freed of water traffic and cruise ships) and improved nature conservation (through lower human interference because of lockdown).”
Other research institutes have also noted the similarity in the greenhouse gas emissions dip currently seen to that which happened during the 2007-2008 global financial crash. Following a 1.5 percent decline in emissions came a 5.1 percent recovery. This kind of rebound has reportedly already been seen in China, where daily coal consumption at six major firms in China have returned to a normal range.
“Past global economic slowdowns saw temporary reductions, but post-recovery emissions always bounced back where they would have been in the absence of a recession,” Seaver Wang, a climate and energy analyst, and Zeke Hausfather, director of Climate and Energy, both from Breakthrough Institute wrote in a post.
Using GDP projections, the Breakthrough Institute has also projected a fall in global CO2 emissions of between 0.5 and 2.2 percent in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But this is barely a dent in the grand scheme of things, particularly as a UN report last November warned that in order to reach the Paris Agreement’s ambitious goal of 1.5°C of warming by 2030, emissions must drop 7.6 percent per year throughout the next decade.
“Our estimates indicate that the pandemic’s climate silver lining is vanishingly thin,” Wang and Hausfather concluded.
In light of the pandemic, the COP26 UN Climate change conference, due to happen later this year, has been postponed until 2021. This news has been welcomed by scientists who say this will allow the government to focus on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and enable the summit to receive the attention it so desperately needs.