COVID-19 and Climate Change: What the Pandemic Means for Climate

The coronavirus is dominating the news. Media worldwide have little space to spare for news unrelated to the current pandemic. Few have probably heard of the category 5 Tropical Cyclone Harold that hit Vanuatu on 6 April and brought widespread damage—only five years after the country suffered from Tropical Cyclone Pam, the strongest cyclone on record.

Climate change is even more destructive than Covid-19, although its effects are less visible, less concentrated, and less present in the industrialised Northern countries that have to date been hit hardest by the coronavirus. Climate change impacts are much harder to trace. Extreme weather events such as the two tropical cyclones Pam and Harold cannot be causally related to climate change; climate change just makes such weather extremes more likely and more intense. And while the current pandemic is (hopefully) a rare one-off event, climate change is here to last. Heatwaves, storms, flooding and drought will continue to claim victims, including casualties, for the next century. A 2018 WHO report thus estimates an additional 250,000 deaths per year (!) caused by global warming between 2030 and 2050.

While climate change and Covid-19 thus differ in important respects and are not related, there is increasing discussion of what Covid-19 means for climate change. Several have pointed out the ‘collateral benefits’ of the pandemic—or more precisely: of our response to the pandemic. The disruption of the global economy and the significant reduction in air and ground traffic and industrial production has significantly reduced air pollution, as satellite images clearly demonstrate. The economic shutdown, alongside the unusually warm winter in Europe (the warmest on record— another sign of climate change), also brought down CO2 emissions (but not atmospheric CO2 concentrations).

Yet caution is required, as many pointed out, including head of the UN Environment Programme (INEP) Inger Andersen. Reduced pollution from the economic shutdown is a one-off effect that will disappear when the crisis is over, companies re-open, travel restrictions are lifted and economies recover. As long as the underlying production and consumption patterns are unchanged, we are not closer to limiting global warming. Covid-19 is not good news for the climate, and even bad news, as the response to this health crisis diverts money and attention away from the climate crisis. The pandemic even delays important climate policies, as for example international climate negotiations are postponed to “safeguard lives.”

However, the pandemic does offer some lessons and reasons for hope. First and foremost, the coronavirus shows just how much can be done when there is political will: how many far-reaching measures can be taken and how much money can be mobilised in a matter of just days. If just a small portion of the billions of dollars pledged for economic recovery were used to ‘build back better’ and to invest "cleaner and greener" we could get much closer to the agreed objective of keeping warming to below 2°C and hopefully below 1.5°C. And some of the habits we have had to develop over the past weeks are climate-friendly and should be maintained. For example, the turn to online meetings and video conferences show that e-meetings are possible and that not all travel is strictly necessary. Academics, in particular, may use this opportunity to re-consider their work-related (air) travel, a significant source of emissions that has been increasingly been discussed and is receiving even more attention right now."

This article was originally published on the CERI website.

Carola Klöck is a research director at the CERI Sciences Po and an assistant professor in political science. Her research is focalised at the crossroads between political science, human geography and development studies, and closely examines adaptation to climate change and environmental policy more generally. She has a specific interest in island contexts, notably small island developing states and their role in international climate negotiations.

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