The fate of the climate crisis in post-COVID times

By Fabio Cresto Aleína

During the first months of the COVID crisis social media have been inundated by images and posts of a supposedly recovering nature taking back spaces and areas previously occupied by humans. As it quickly became clear, most of these images were fake, and the spread of such misinformation gave false ideas about a certain positive impact that the COVID pandemic was having on the environment and on Earth’s climate. That said, while the images of dolphins swimming in Venice’s empty channels turned out to be taken elsewhere, it is true that the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the main responsibles of the anthropogenic climate change, experienced an unprecedented worldwide drop during the past months, and that in many regions air quality dramatically improved, albeit only temporarily.

As of the beginning of July, the worldwide decrease of travels during the pandemic, along with the global decline of energy demand caused a drop of 7 to 8 percent in the emissions. Now, what does this number mean and what is the impact of this drop in GHG emissions? A 7% drop means that the 2020 GHG will likely be at the 2010-2011 levels, a reduction unprecedented since World War II. Now, while this phenomenon per se does not sound like bad news, we still have to put this number in perspective. Greenhouse gas emissions around 2010-2011 were still roughly two times the yearly GHG emissions during the Seventies! Moreover, this drop came at a terrible price paid by the world economies, in particular by the most vulnerable ones. Therefore, while any reduction in emissions is welcomed, this is definitely not the idea behind the development of a sustainable decarbonized economy. Thousands of people lost their jobs in the inevitable post-pandemic economic crisis, whole industry sectors are in shambles, and across the world people are suffering during the strict lockdown measures many governments put in place in order to slow down the pandemic. Sadly, though, in such a critical situation very few steps were taken towards the economic transformation we need if we want to achieve the famous target of 1.5 degree of warming.

If we look at what happened in history, previous crisis in which GHG emissions decreased, from the 4% drop at the beginning of the Eighties during the oil crisis to the 1% drop after the 2008 financial crisis, have never led to a sustainable long-term decrease in emissions. Immediately after these drops, instead, the world increased GHG emissions to levels even higher than before, in order for the economy to catch up and recover. It is therefore highly probable that also this time the reduction in emissions will just be temporary, and that it will not have a fundamental impact on how much carbon will stay in the atmosphere on the long term. The International Energy Agency forecasts a potential rebound in demand for the next year even larger than the 7 to 8 percent decline we are now experiencing, in line to what happened in the past. In addition, in order for the economy to recover, many governments may move funds from environment protection programs, or from the resources allocated for the transition to a fossil-free economy, to programs that will support basic economic recovery. It is possible and even likely, for example, that the fight to cease state subsidies to maintain oil prices relatively low will stop, and that many resources will be funneled to the commercial aviation sector to keep it alive. Recently the European Union cut around 13 billion euros from its budget for research and investment within the Horizon Europe program, which includes the areas of adaptation to climate change including societal transformation, climate-neutral and smart cities, healthy oceans, seas, coastal and inland waters. In countries like Guatemala after the pandemic there will likely be a stronger pression on resources for nature conservancy, as the first priorities for the government will likely be focused on increasing the population incomes. It will be a challenge to find new mechanisms to avoid an excessive shrinking of such conservation programs, in order not to experience a large-scale deterioration of many ecosystems.

The future, though, can also be less bleak than what has been described so far, though. From the energy sector, for example, there have even been some positive trends during the past months. For example, the only energy sector that showed an increase in demand was the renewable sector. In respect to the traditional sources from fossil fuels, renewables require relatively lower operating costs, and International Energy Agency forecasts a further growth in energy demand from such sources over the course of this year. Moreover, governments around the world are just now starting to think about new policies to improve the economic recovery. It is still unknown how much of these policies will keep an eye on rethinking our traditional means of production as a whole, but this is probably the perfect opportunity to justify a sustainable transition towards a decarbonized economy. During these months the lives of many changed dramatically, and several of our everyday activities were put on halt. The fact that this huge impact on our daily life meant “just” a 7-8% reduction in GHG emissions can only be explained by the fact that we need much deeper, structural changes in our societies in order to stay under 1.5 degrees of warming. Changes that are possible only through the large-scale actions of governments and international organizations, and that have to be supported by a widespread consensus in the civil society.

Really, absolutely nobody would have hoped to cut GHG emissions in this way. It was and it still is a terrible situation, and the price many people are paying, especially in the most vulnerable communities, is extremely high. The environmental movements cannot forget this heavy toll, in order not to give fertile ground for the growth of ecofascist ideologies. Nonetheless, now it is time to act and to make the recent drop of GHG emissions as long and as sustainable as possible and to avoid another crisis to worsen our already fragile economic system. If there is a lesson to be learnt from what happened during the pandemic is that action, when needed, can happen. Many states quickly enforced laws and measures that were unthinkable until just few months ago. The same can and must happen for the climate crisis, if we want to have a chance to avoid the tragic impacts that an unchecked warming will bring upon us. Collective action in these moments is the key not only to help communities fighting the immediate COVID crisis, but it is also pivotal in the longer term, to help against the effect of a changing climate. As many traditional sectors of the economy are struggling in the global economic crisis, the interventions and the actions that governments are going to take in the following months may constitute in fact an opportunity, since they have the potential of influencing the future global GHG emission paths. And it is this unique opportunity that collective movements will have to take, to be able to steer these policies towards a greener, decarbonized economy.