COVID-19 and the (possibly) changing climate debate

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
A normally busy highway ramp is nearly empty in Pasadena, near Los Angeles, on April 20, 2020. Los Angeles’ stay-at-home order in response to COVID-19 has caused a drop in pollution.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the question: “What lessons will we learn?” And for those trying to address climate change, it has brought a sense of a potentially pivotal moment.

By mid-March, amid economic shutdowns, scientists calculated a nearly 20% drop in carbon emissions in China. In large cities in Asia, Europe, and the Americas, the air has been much clearer. The main lesson for activists is that in crisis, with a scientific consensus, leaders can act decisively. And their hope – reflected in an open letter last month– is that similarly, as leaders push to rebuild economies, greener priorities will prevail.

Why We Wrote This

Many climate activists see the world's community-spirited response to the coronavirus as potentially shaping a more robust response to another collective challenge: global warming.

Yet governments must weigh tough tradeoffs.

In the United States, that includes how extensively to intervene to support the oil industry and airlines. In France, President Emmanuel Macron, an advocate for international action on climate, confronts the expectation that the economy will shrink by at least 6%. In China, the economy has shrunk by 6.8% in the first three months of 2020.

The imperative – for authoritarian regimes and democratically elected governments alike – will be to get a battered economy back in action. That could temper the appetite for greener initiatives.

“Will we learn the lessons?”

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads worldwide, that question is being heard ever more widely. Yet the potentially more critical question is what lessons we’ll learn. And on at least one key policy challenge, climate change, the terms of debate have been getting clearer and starker. 

Climate change will be far from the only subject of post-pandemic policy debate, given the sheer scale of the human cost of the COVID crisis and the unprecedented economic and political actions governments are taking to constrain it. Tug of wars are certain to surface domestically on issues like welfare provision, public health, economic security, or the trade-off between surveillance and individual rights. Internationally, we'll see them on the future of badly strained international institutions, the workings of the global economy, and relations with China.

Why We Wrote This

Many climate activists see the world's community-spirited response to the coronavirus as potentially shaping a more robust response to another collective challenge: global warming.

Yet even as the pandemic continues to spread, the “what lessons” question has brought a dramatically new context and urgency to the debate around climate change.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

For those already urging a far stronger worldwide response – scientists, policy specialists, politicians, and the growing numbers of grassroots campaigners inspired by the teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg – the pandemic is being viewed as a potentially pivotal moment. 

They’re presenting it as important new evidence both of why action on climate change matters, and why such action is also possible if leaders summon the political will.

Exhibit A

Exhibit A came in late February, with satellite photos of mainland China in the wake of its economic shutdowns showing a dramatic drop in emissions of one toxic gas, nitrogen dioxide. By midway through March, scientists were estimating a roughly 25% decrease from the usual level of carbon emissions in China, the world’s single largest source of the pollutant.

Since then, millions of people across the world have seen and felt the environmental effects of COVID-related economic lockdowns. In large cities from New Delhi to Bangkok in Asia, London to Rome in Europe, and New York to Bogota in the Americas, not only were the streets suddenly quieter, the air was much clearer.

And in what climate activists see as an important signpost for the way forward, huge numbers of people have responded to COVID-19 – like global warming, a product of human interaction with the natural world – with generosity, altruism, and community-spirited action.

The main lesson climate activists are drawing, however, is that in times of crisis, with a scientific consensus on what is necessary and what will work, leaders can act decisively. For the advocates of stronger action on climate change, the takeaway is clear. As Ms. Thunberg remarked on a recent Zoom call with fellow activists and supporters, “every crisis needs to be treated like a crisis.”

The advocates of climate change action also know, of course, that the shutdown of wide areas of the world’s major economies is, in the longer run, neither sustainable nor desirable. Their hope – reflected in an open letter last month by an alliance of scientists, politicians, religious leaders, and climate activists – is that in the push to revive and rebuild world economies, greener priorities become the drivers.

That’s where the other side of the debate, the pushback, is likely to come to the fore. And there have already been signs of the tradeoffs that major governments are going to have to weigh.

A combination image distributed by the European Space Agency on March 27, 2020, shows the average nitrogen dioxide concentrations from air pollution across France in March, 2019 (l.), and from March 14-25, 2020. The ESA says the reduction is due to the strict quarantine measures during the coronavirus disease outbreak.

Oil and airlines

Take the world's largest economy, the United States. The oil industry and the airlines, two major contributors to carbon emissions, have been severely hit. Given the prospect of continued low oil prices and reduced air travel even when the worst of the COVID-19 crisis has passed, the federal government will have to decide how extensively to intervene in support of their recovery. The signs from the Trump administration, at least so far, is that both are likely to receive high-priority attention.

In France, where President Emmanuel Macron has been an advocate of international action on climate change, it is clear he, too, will face difficult decisions. In an effort last year to blunt the “direct democracy” demands of yellow-vest protesters who had been staging street demonstrations across the country, he empowered a citizens’ panel to come up with policy recommendations on reducing emissions. He pledged not to ignore them. But the agenda they’ve produced includes radical constraints on everything from air travel and automobile sales to telecommunications infrastructure – now coinciding with a COVID-19 crisis that is expected to shrink France’s economy this year by at least 6%.

Nor is China immune. In the first three months of the year, its economy shrank by 6.8% – the first such contraction since official quarterly GDP figures were first released nearly three decades ago.

In theory at least, President Xi Jinping could further re-burnish his post-crisis international image by prioritizing lower-carbon technologies in his drive to get the economy growing again. 

There would be another potential advantage to doing that. The main policy tool used to respond to the last major economic jolt – the 2008 world financial crisis – might not be as attractive this time around. Back then, the answer was a huge financial stimulus. It worked. Yet it also hugely raised the scale of debt inside China, a problem President Xi has in recent years been actively seeking to bring under control.

Still, the immediate imperative – for Mr. Xi’s authoritarian regime no less than for democratically elected leaders like President Trump or President Macron – will be to get a comprehensively battered economy back in action as quickly as possible. So it’s at least as likely that the Chinese leader will focus on reviving his country’s existing economic machine.

This story was published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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