How has COVID-19 affected the climate, and the climate movement?

Updated: Nov 19

At the start of the pandemic, there was a simple fallacious beauty to the lockdown.


In early March, satellite images from NASA showed how within a few weeks, the air pollution that hovers over China, usually visible from space, had begun to clear. The acrid smog that perpetually grips China was lifted.


As city after city locked down, the reports came flooding through. From Kathmandu, you could see the Himalaya again. The canals were running clear in Venice. Smog cleared in Manila. New Delhi recorded a 60% drop in fine particulate matter in the air.

Gauri Shankar, Kang Nachugo, Mt Everest, Chobutse | Abhushan Gautam | https://www.nepalitimes.com/banner/when-the-air-is-clean/

By April, as reported in Nature Climate Change, global daily carbon emissions were 17% lower than the same time last year: in some countries, as much as 26% lower.


It felt breathtakingly simple. The truth was there to see – it could be done. A few flicks of a few switches, and there it went, smog gently dispersing from the cities with the gentle shifting of winds.


I felt a helpless and naïve indignation at how easy it was. I couldn’t imagine a world in which we could clear the skies like that in the name of the climate.

Satellite images from NASA show the initial reduction in air pollution following COVID-19 lockdowns | NASA

The initial zeitgeist was enthusiastic, as people revelled in the emissions reductions brought by the shutdown of manufacturing and reduction in air travel. But the reductions were not to last and experts warned that this was nothing to get excited about. People began returning to work and factories to recommence manufacturing. By early June, daily global carbon emissions had increased by 12%, to only 5% lower than the same time last year.


Even if this weren't the case, let’s be clear: temporary emissions reductions and other perceived environmental ‘advantages’ of the COVID-19 lockdown are not a good thing. As the World Health Organisation plainly states: “Any short-term environmental benefits as a result of COVID-19 come at an unacceptable human and economic cost, and are no substitute for planned and sustained action on air quality and climate.”


The COVID-19 crisis has had a devastating impact and is a time for mourning.


But this doesn’t mean that we can afford lose focus on the climate crisis. How we address and respond to the economic and social impacts of the pandemic is vitally important.


If nothing is done, in the post-pandemic period, COVID-19 could result in an emissions rebound and a loss of momentum for climate action.


Why? We've seen it happen before.

An emissions rebound


History has shown that during economic recessions, carbon emissions usually decline rapidly, but return to their former trajectory within a year. Economic activity and carbon emissions are intricately linked; so, when we see a halt in economic activity, carbon emissions go down. As the recovery process begins, however, economic stimulus and a desire to rapidly restore growth and stability can have a rebound effect on emissions. This is precisely what happened during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007–2008.

Historically, carbon emissions have not been meaningfully interrupted by economic crises | Global Carbon Project

What this means is that short-term emissions reductions associated with recession are not environmentally meaningful, and unlikely to last. According to the World Health Organisation, “Environmental improvements resulting from the COVID-19 response may be reversed by a rapid expansion of polluting economic activities once the measures have ended, unless there is a clear focus to promote equity, environmental health, around a just transition to a green economy.”


Already, however, as reported by Beth Gardiner for the National Geographic, we’re seeing countries using stimulus money to finance industries and infrastructure projects which are fiscally irresponsible and environmentally unsustainable. In China, one of the first countries to begin reopening and looking to post-pandemic economic recovery, the outlook is "alarming", say lead analysts at the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Helsinki. Funding of myriad new construction projects, including a host of coal-fired power plants, has begun as government officials seek the economic boost that comes with infrastructure development. Unfortunately, the long lifetime of these coal plants suggests the health and climate detriments may well be locked in for many years to come.


But it’s not just China; in the United States, the oil and gas industries have been aggressively, and successfully, lobbying the government for financial relief packages. Lukas Ross, a policy advocate at Friends of the Earth, warns that in the United States, there is, “a serious risk that polluters could emerge from this crisis bolder and potentially more profitable than ever.”


"Environmental improvements resulting from the COVID-19 response may be reversed by a rapid expansion of polluting economic activities once the measures have ended, unless there is a clear focus to promote equity, environmental health, around a just transition to a green economy."

Professor Matthew England from the Climate Change Research Centre says it would be “disastrous” if Australia also follows this path by funding “lazy, low-tech” fuels to stimulate the economy. But there are early warning signs that this is exactly what might happen. The federal government is looking to expand coal mining to steady unemployment levels. Although not yet approved, Resources Minister Keith Pitt has described the proposed expansion of Queensland’s Acland thermal coal mine as “even more” important now than ever. In South Australia, the mining, oil, and gas sectors have had their exploration and licence fees suspended.


It’s not too late. We still have a choice about how we direct post-pandemic investment. The COVID-19 recovery phase is a perfect opportunity to inject money into low-carbon energy transitions and technologies, and to accelerate the phase-out of coal-fired power. Policy reform and spending accelerate in the wake of global disasters like COVID-19 and could provide a platform for rapid climate action.


Daniel Rosenbloom from the University of Toronto and Jochen Markard from ETH Zurich authored a recent opinion piece stating that, “COVID-19 recovery … presents a strategic opportunity to transition toward a more sustainable … world.”


Australian experts agree. As Professor Mark Howden from the Climate Change Institution at the Australian National University in Canberra recently told the BBC, “When you have significant disruption like this, it does give you an opportunity to move forward on a different trajectory from the one you’re on previously.”


The question is, do we have the environmental engagement and political will to make a change?

A loss of momentum


In Australia, history has also shown that economic crises can drain energy from the climate movement. Economic issues are frightening on a very personal level. This is only magnified by the addition of pandemic to the equation; individuals and their families are suffering immediate mental health, physical health, financial, and social consequences. People are shocked, stricken, and in some cases stripped of their support networks.


People are losing their jobs and see the fragility of the world and their place in it in a new way; by experiencing it.


There are so many issues affecting Australia right now.


Are we in danger of forgetting about our devastating fire season?

An aerial view of firse burning through Tasmania | Facebook: Tasmania Parks And Wildlife Service

We know that economic crises can draw engagement away from the climate.


In the mid-2000s, the devastating Millennium Drought brought Australian federal climate policy sharply into focus. In 2006, 82% of Australians were concerned about global warming and 67% felt that immediate action was needed before it become too late. Australians were environmentally engaged and demanding policy change to mitigate the economic and environmental damage caused by climate inaction. But as the drought began to ease and the GFC to take hold in the late 2000s, government and media focus shifted to economic recovery and reform; huge advertising campaigns from the Minerals Council of Australia were launched against Labor's mining tax. The urgency of climate action was deescalated. The overwhelming sentiment was that there were more important issues to deal with. By 2010, over a third of Australians surveyed believed that climate risks were exaggerated.


This year, people were shocked and devastated by the 2019–2020 bushfire season in Australia.


Dr Bec Strating, senior lecturer at La Trobe University, reflected that, “Some analysts – myself included – wondered whether the particularly intense bushfire season might present the kind of national crisis that Australia needs to shake it from its climate malaise.”


But it turns out that lots of things are shocking.

Global warming sentiment in Australia has fluctuated over time in response to economic crisis; our willingness to spend significant federal money and resources on climate action fell between 2007 and 2012 during and after the Global Financial Crisis | Lowy Institute Poll 2020

In the Lowy Institute Poll 2020 report, Dr Michael Fullilove put in plainly: “Many believed 2020 would be a year of debate about climate policy in Australia, in the aftermath of our hellish summer of bushfires. But COVID-19 has turned Australians’ heads. Though Australians continue to view climate change as a critical threat, their anxiety has been eclipsed by the pandemic and its economic effects.”


As Professor Mark Howden commented, “The droughts and the fires and the smoke haze across major cities have dissipated with the arrival of COVID-19… and clearly the momentum for change in relation to the climate here in Australia has dissipated quite considerably too.


"Many believed 2020 would be a year of debate about climate policy in Australia, in the aftermath of our hellish summer of bushfires. But COVID-19 has turned Australians’ heads. Though Australians continue to view climate change as a critical threat, their anxiety has been eclipsed by the pandemic and its economic effects."

What I wonder is when the climate crisis will be shocking enough to galvanize a global response, to make it feel as urgent and important as the global response to COVID-19.


How much worse does it need to get?

Fungi in the Barrington Tops | April 2020

Whether or not we will recover from this economic pandemic crisis in an environmentally ethical way is unclear. Scott Morrison continues to declare on a global stage that Australia is doing our bit for climate change.


And I continue to be ashamed of our country’s leadership.


But there is something positive to take away from this.


In the global response to COVID-19, political leaders and the public are turning to scientific experts for knowledge and guidance. There seems to be a restoration of public faith in experts and academic institutions. There are countries around the world where political leaders are listening to experts in public health, infectious disease, and epidemiology, and being conservative and sensitive in their approach to lockdown; taking evidence-based measures; and they’re doing well.


"Climate change, unfortunately, has had three or