Months of inactive offices, shopping malls, and sports centers. Minimal commuters, business travelers, and holidaymakers. Little to no in-person conferences, concerts, or socializing. The COVID-19 crisis has brought our society to a standstill more than any other point in the last 70-years, and while human society may be having a tough time, our environment is breathing a deep and fresh sigh of relief as greenhouse gas emissions drop to levels we have not seen for decades.
“The COVID-19 crisis could mark a turning point in progress on climate change. This year, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will fall by more than in any other year on record,” begins a joint report by Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Columbia, and the London School of Economics. “The percentage declines likely in 2020, however, would need to be repeated, year after year, to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Instead, emissions will rebound once mobility restrictions are lifted and economies recover, unless governments intervene. There are reasons to fear that we will leap from the COVID frying pan into the climate fire.
Greenhouse gas emissions reduce during every recession. Less money circulating through society leads to increased caution, meaning we buy less and we’re less wasteful in order to reduce costs. As economic activity reduces so does overall demand, reducing electricity-hungry production. As companies shrink or go out of business, more commercial facilities turn off their power consuming building systems. It would be easy to say that recessions are good for the environment but they are not. As quickly as we declined we return to make up for lost earnings, drive economic growth, but without the same sense of environmental responsibility we had before.
The last economic downturn, in 2008, significantly reduced global greenhouse-gas emissions in 2009, but by 2010 emissions had reached a record high because governments implemented measures to stimulate economies and with limited regard for the environmental consequences. We must repair the economic damage, of course, people suffer more during a downturn. However, we are now 10-years closer to climate disaster, we cannot afford to return to normal, let alone see another post-recession period of record greenhouse-gas emissions. We must take this crisis as an opportunity to avoid an even bigger disaster.
“The climate emergency is like the COVID-19 emergency, just in slow motion and much graver. Both involve market failures, externalities, international cooperation, complex science, questions of system resilience, political leadership, and action that hinges on public support,” suggest Cameron Hepburn et al. in a May 2020 paper published by Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. “Decisive state interventions are also required to stabilize the climate, by tipping energy and industrial systems towards newer, cleaner, and ultimately cheaper modes of production that become impossible to outcompete.”
Public support for environmental responsibility was at an all-time high before COVID-19 changed our focus to public health and economic recovery, putting environmental issues on hold. However, the crisis has also allowed us to slow down, reflect, and hear the birds. Opinion polls in many countries have shown that people are noticing the increased air quality, uncongested and quiet roads, as well as the return of birdsong and wildlife in our cities. Our global society may be in a position to collectively envision real change, and we must take this opportunity or start facing the fact that nothing can stop a climate disaster.
In many nations and blocs around the world, efforts to provide economic relief and restart growth after the pandemic and recession have already begun. Governments around the world have devoted more than $10 trillion to economic-stimulus measures and support is mounting for a low-carbon recovery from the COVID-19 economic crisis. While these financial commitments to reignite the economy do not specifically prioritize climate change, the pressure to do so is mounting as the opportunity is collectively realized.
An informal alliance has been launched in the European Parliament on the back of calls from 12 EU environment ministers who have signed an appeal for a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Green-Recovery Alliance, launched in April by the environment ministers from those 12 European countries, has since been joined by 79 members of the European Parliament, and 37 CEOs and business associations, and more than 50 banking and insurance CEOs across the continent.
“There will be a before and after COVID-19 crisis. We are choosing to accelerate the ecological transition when the time comes to reinvest in the economy,” said Pascal Canfin, one of the signatories and a French centrist MEP who chairs the European Parliament’s committee on environment and public health. “COVID-19 has not made the climate crisis go away. The public money that states and Europe will spend to reinvest in the economy must be consistent with the Green Deal,” he added.
In the UK, more than 200 prominent business leaders have written a letter to prime minister Boris Johnson calling for a clean, inclusive, and resilient recovery from coronavirus. The property and construction industry is heavily represented in the letter, with members of the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) making up over a third of signatories. The letter demands that the government drives investment in low carbon innovation, infrastructure, and industries while focusing support on activities that can best support sustainable growth, job creation and accelerate both the recovery and the decarbonization of the economy.
“A clean, inclusive, and resilient recovery from coronavirus is vital if we are to learn the lessons from this health emergency and ramp up action to tackle the climate and ecological crisis and reduce social inequality, said Julie Hirigoyen, Chief Executive at UKGBC. “The built environment can plan a pivotal role in helping the country to build back better. We can unlock huge opportunities for resilient recovery through measures such as introducing ambitious new build standards; prioritizing home energy efficiency; and investing in urban greening.”
After the last economic downturn in 2008, solar panels cost seven times more than they do today, wind turbines cost three times more, zero-emission cars were barely prototypes, smart-efficient technology was still just hype, and we were yet to demonstrate the profitability of building renovation. Effective green technologies are now available, business leaders and politicians are backing change, and despite social distancing, our global society has never been so united. Crisis creates an opportunity for change and if the momentum continues, COVID-19 could turn out to be the crisis that saved the world.