COVID-19’s impact on the environment
In 2020, we have witnessed one of the largest carbon crashes ever recorded in history. The COVID-19 pandemic, which brought our globalized world to a halt, had many aversive effects on our economic and social systems and has taken the lives of over 1 million people worldwide. Parallel to these devastating consequences positive effects exist on our environment due to the closing of international borders, restricted traveling, and reduction of industrial production/energy use. Air quality drastically improved, and eco-systems slowly recovered. However, these remarkable changes have shown to be only temporary.
“Worldwide lockdowns had positive effects on our environment like improved air quality and recovering eco-systems.”
Increase of economic activities & CO₂ emissions
It is safe to say there is a clear connection between the growth of the economy and climate change. Historically, we observe how brief drops of carbon emissions have never resulted in long term sustainable effects on climate change. The visible tendency of post-crisis periods has always been to exceed the precedent levels of CO₂ production when generating an economic recovery. In the Great Recession of 2008-2009, we witnessed another significant decline in carbon emissions due to the financial crisis. However, this resulted in China’s increasing production and CO₂ emissions. We can further observe this during the peacetime economy after World War II when factories producing bombs and other war supplies transitioned to consumer goods such as cars, clothes, and house appliances, which had been rare during wartime and became a high public demand.
Read more about the History of Carbon Emissions →
“The visible tendency of post-crisis periods has always been to exceed the precedent levels of CO₂ production when generating an economic recovery.”
Concerning COVID-19, a recent study shows daily global carbon emissions during the peak of the lockdown dropped by 17% in comparison to 2019. However, as traveling restrictions and general lockdown conditions revert to normal, CO₂ emissions have rapidly picked up in the past months, currently being only 5% less than 2019. Taking into account what we’ve observed in the past, this outcome shouldn’t be surprising, as history repeats itself. This accelerated increase is raising concerns that the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere could reach the highest level yet. Nonetheless, it is relevant to understand that even if this rapid increase wouldn’t have occurred, and levels produced during the lockdown in April would have been maintained, it would still be necessary to reduce global emissions by 50% by 2030 to hinder climate change.
A chance for change
Long term sustainable changes are only possible through severe systemic transformations. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, global CO₂ emissions are divided into six main economic sectors: 1) electricity and heat production (25%), 2) industry (21%), 3) agricultural, forestry, and other land uses (24%), 4) transportation (14%), 5) buildings (6%) and 6) other energy (10%). From these main sectors, transportation was mostly impacted during confinement, while electricity and heat production hardly were affected. Hence change needs to be at a transversal level through greener policies, instead of a simple reduction of general energy production. Three main ways to catalyze systemic changes are in 1) private investments, changing from fossil fuels to renewable energy, 2) government green policies to significantly cut down their national greenhouse gas emissions, and 3) community behavioral shifts in consumerism and transportation. Therefore, current investments to reestablish local and global economies after the COVID-19 crisis could be made simultaneously while investing in green policies for cities and industries.
“Change needs to be at a transversal level through greener policies, instead of a simple reduction of general energy production.”
This year has been an opportunity for us to experience how life could look like if we adopt more sustainable policies. Leaders, politicians, and citizens have been forced to reflect on what is essential for the planet, our well being and our future as a human race. Hopefully, it has offered us meaningful insights on how to deal with climate change.