Could Covid lockdown have helped save the planet?
Slowdown of human activity was too short to reverse years of destruction, but we saw a glimpse of post-fossil fuel world
When lockdown began, climate scientists were horrified at the unfolding tragedy, but also intrigued to observe what they called an “inadvertent experiment” on a global scale. To what extent, they asked, would the Earth system respond to the steepest slowdown in human activity since the second world war?
Environmental activists put the question more succinctly: how much would it help to save the planet?
Almost one year on from the first reported Covid case, the short answer is: not enough. In fact, experts say the pandemic may have made some environmental problems worse, though there is still a narrow window of opportunity for something good to come from something bad if governments use their economic stimulus packages to promote a green recovery.
During the northern hemisphere spring, when restrictions were at their strictest, the human footprint softened to a level not seen in decades. Flights halved, road traffic in the UK fell by more than 70%. Industrial emissions in China, the world’s biggest source of carbon, were down about 18% between early February and mid-March – a cut of 250m tonnes. Car use in the United States declined by 40%. So light was humankind’s touch on the Earth that seismologists were able to detect lower vibrations from “cultural noise” than before the pandemic.
The respite was too short to reverse decades of destruction, but it did provide a glimpse of what the world might feel like without fossil fuels and with more space for nature.
Wildlife did not have time to reclaim lost territory but it had scope for exploration. Alongside apocalyptic images of deserted roads, the internet briefly buzzed with heartwarming clips of sheep in a deserted playground in Monmouthshire, Wales, coyotes on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, wild boar snuffling through the streets of Barcelona, and deer grazing not far from the White House in Washington DC. Wildflowers flourished on roadsides because verges were cut less frequently.
In the global south, the picture was more mixed. Rhino poaching declined in Tanzania due to disruption of supply chains and restrictions on cross-border movements, but bushmeat hunting, illegal firewood collection and incursions into protected areas increased in India, Nepal and Kenya because local communities lost tourist income and sought other ways to care for their families.
In Brazil, traditional guardians of the Amazon have been weakened. The Xavante and Yanomami indigenous groups have been strongly impacted by the disease, and the lockdown has kept forest rangers at home. Meanwhile, land grabbers, fire-starters and illegal miners were busier than ever. Deforestation in Brazil hit a 12-year high.
Elsewhere, there were health gains, though probably not enough to offset the losses. Providing a little relief from rising Covid death tolls were projections in Europe of at least 11,000 fewer fatalities from air pollution. Breathing cleaner air also meant 6,000 fewer children developing asthma, 1,900 avoiding A&E visits and 600 fewer being born preterm.
In the UK, 2 million people with respiratory conditions experienced reduced symptoms. The change was visible from space, where satellite picked up clear reductions of smog belts over Wuhan in China and Turin in Italy. Residents in many cities could also see the difference. In Kathmandu, Nepal, residents were astonished to make out Mount Everest for the first time in decades. In Manila, the Sierra Madre became visible again.
But the gains were short-lived. Once lockdown eased, traffic surged back and so did air pollution. In a survey of 49 British towns and cities, 80% had contamination levels that were now the same or worse than before the pandemic. Elsewhere, sightings of distant mountain peaks and wild animals are fading in the memory.
The story is equally disheartening when it comes to global carbon emissions, which fell steeply but not for long enough to dent climate fears. Months of empty roads and skies and sluggish economic activity reduced global greenhouse gas discharges by an estimated 7%, the sharpest annual fall ever recorded.
That is a saving of 1.5 to 2.5bn metric tons of CO2 pollution, but it merely slowed the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere, leaving the world on course for more than 3.2C of warming by the end of this century. In its annual emissions gap report, the United Nations environment programme said the impact of the lockdown was “negligible”, equivalent to just 0.01Cdifference by 2030.
On a more optimistic note, it said ambitious green recovery spending could put the world back on track for the Paris agreement target of less than 2C of warming.
There is scant sign of that so far. Although China, the EU, the UK, Japan and South Korea have all recently announced carbon neutral targets by the mid-century, no nation is doing enough to achieve such a goal. Most stimulus spending is going to fossil fuel industries that are making the climate worse rather than to renewables that could make it better. These twisted priorities have raised concerns that the Covid lockdown may end up like the 2008-09 financial crisis, which led to a brief fall in emissions followed by a surge back to record highs.
“Based on how little of the roughly $15tn in stimulus spending has gone to green energy and clean tech, I think Covid will delay the transition to a carbon-free future,” said Rob Jackson, the chair of Global Carbon Project. In China, he said, emissions were already back to 2019 levels, while other governments were using the pandemic as an excuse to delay climate action in the aviation sector.
In the US, Donald Trump has gone further in his demonstration of crisis capitalism by rolling back a raft of environmental protections and ramping up support for fossil fuels.
The situation is not entirely bleak. This exceptional year has strengthened the economic argument for renewable energy, which has proved a robust, cheap alternative during the lockdown. Analysts predict 2020 will confirm the terminal decline of coal, the dirtiest of fuels, and also heighten doubts about investments in oil. Crude prices at one point fell to minus dollars a barrel.
By comparison, wind and solar power is stable and clean. “The virus has highlighted the health damage of oil-based transportation through air pollution. We caught a glimpse of a future with cleaner air in our cities without fossil fuel pollution from vehicles,” Jackson said.
Whether this is a blip or a turning point depends on action at the national and international level. As the climate-limp stimulus packages have shown, national governments are reluctant to change direction alone. Global cooperation is therefore essential.
But here too, coronavirus has proved an impediment. World leaders were supposed to meet in Glasgow this month for a UN climate summit that was designed to ramp up ambition, but that physical meeting had to be postponed until 2021. The virtual gathering that the UK hosts organised instead barely maintained the momentum. Very few of the participating nations came forward with concrete steps.
It was a similar story with international biodiversity talks that were supposed to have taken place in Kunming. They have been pushed back until next May at the earliest and recalcitrant nations such as Brazil have been accused of impeding progress by throwing up questions about online processes. As with the climate, it would not be accurate to say this was a lost year in international decision-making, but schedules have definitely been set back even as world leaders warn that time is running out.
The necessity for action was driven home by another year of horrifying climate news: 2020 saw record smoke plumes from bushfires in Australia, a freakishly protracted heatwave in Siberia, the most tropical storms ever registered in the Atlantic, devastating blazes in Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands, the highest flood levels recorded in east Africa, unusually devastating cyclones and typhoons in India, Indonesia and the Philippines, the hottest northern hemisphere summer in history, and temperature records in the Antarctic and the Arctic, where winter ice formation was delayed for longer than in any season in the satellite era.
January and November registered all-time heat records, while 2020 as a whole is certain to ensure the last seven years are the hottest since measurements began.
The interconnectedness of the world’s multiple crises is also increasingly apparent. Epidemiologists and conservationists have warned that outbreaks of coronavirus-like diseases are more likely in the future as a result of deforestation, global heating and humankind’s treatment of nature.
“The emergence of the pandemic is not an accident, as there have been repeated warnings for years that we were exerting too much pressure on the natural world by our destructive practices. Habitat loss, intensive agriculture and the over-exploitation of wildlife are key drivers of the emergence of novel infectious diseases like Covid,” said Paul De Ornellas, chief wildlife adviser at WWF-UK.
The secretary general of the UN, António Guterres, went further. In an impassioned state of the planet address this month, he declared making peace with nature the defining task of the 21st century. “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal,” he said. “Nature always strikes back – and it is already doing so with growing force and fury”
Work on a truce will have a better chance of getting under way next year with a new vaccine, a new president in the White House, a newfound respect for science and a new awareness of how rapidly change can come. It remains to be seen whether that leads to transformative improvement of the Earth system or a resumption of tinkering around the edges.