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Pausing the World to Fight Coronavirus Has Carbon Emissions Down—But True Climate Success Looks Like More Action, Not Less

6 minute read
Wagner teaches climate economics at New York University, is a co-author of Climate Shock and writes the Risky Climate column for Bloomberg Green

Runaway exponential growth. Unprecedented economic impacts. Untold deaths and suffering, especially among the poor and vulnerable.

All these superlatives are sadly apt descriptors for the COVID-19 crisis unfolding in front of our eyes. They also apply to climate change. But while the slowdown in activity due to COVID-19 has led to a temporary fall in China’s carbon dioxide emissions by up to a quarter, that’s not a fact worth celebrating. Nothing in this current crisis looks remotely like success.

When it comes to climate change, the relentless rise in global temperatures is but one harbinger of what is to come, and what is already happening all around. Fires burn brighter, longer and more often. Tropical cyclones grow stronger. There are more extreme heat days causing immense costs in lives and livelihoods alike. These weather extremes, meanwhile, are nothing compared to the consequences of a planet warmed by another degree or two Celsius. That, of course, is precisely why climate change is such a difficult problem to wrap our minds around and, ultimately, to address. The worst is yet to come—decades or even centuries hence.

COVID-19, by comparison, operates on an extremely compressed timescale. Decades are days, centuries are weeks. Political decisions from February—or the lack thereof—affect lives this month. Last week’s decisions affect this week’s case count. People are dying today, and many more will do so literally tomorrow.

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That means we should be looking for any key lessons and insights from decades of studying climate change that can make a difference now—such as include an understanding of exponential growth, the difficulty of dealing with uncertainty and how it takes government policy to address this kind of problem. But though the two crises mirror each other in several ways, the reverse idea, that we should learn from COVID-19 when it comes to the climate, is not necessarily true. Our efforts to mitigate disease transmission right now—such as shelter-in-place orders and limits on travel—should not be a future guide for mitigating carbon dioxide emissions. It would behoove anyone claiming otherwise to realize that most of the rest of us will not look fondly upon this current period of social and economic malaise.

If this were what climate success looked like, I wouldn’t want to vote for it. I care about climate change because I care about people, and people are dying right now. Thankfully, true climate success isn’t anything like today’s situation—even if emissions are down.

Successfully mitigating emissions implies the rapid deployment of new, clean technologies, not a collapse of the global supply chain. It implies more investment, not less.

The current $2.2 trillion spending bill rightly focuses on immediate relief. But more relief will surely be needed, and forthcoming government stimuli the world over ought to help guide the economy toward a more just and sustainable future. Wish lists are appropriately long. There is no single silver bullet—but there are some overarching principles, such as avoiding a further lock-in of inefficient high-carbon assets.

Using this crisis as an excuse to relax rules for polluters is more than just a step backward on the air pollution front. Polluted air compromises immune systems. Intact immune systems, meanwhile, are an important defense against COVID-19. (This, in fact, is one of the very few true silver linings to come out of the pandemic: decreased air pollution has immediate public health benefits, even if they are only temporary side effects of frozen economic activity.) But the answer to pollution isn’t to stop all activity; it’s to find ways to live our lives that don’t harm the Earth.

Read more: Global Air Pollution Has Fallen Due to the Coronavirus Outbreak, but Experts Warn It Isn’t a Silver Lining

One big variable is behavioral change. There, too, it behooves us not to make too much of the rapid changes that have just happened in the current COVID-19 crisis. Yes, some of those lucky enough to have stable salaried jobs have showed that it is possible to have somewhat productive work conversations from makeshift home offices, while homeschooling kids. Some might have even appreciated using COVID-19 as an excuse to avoid having a layover at O’Hare longer than that client meeting. Some of these changes might well be longer-lasting—and meaningful. After all, one cross-country round trip between New York and San Francisco emits about one ton of carbon dioxide per person. That single ton, in turn, melts around 3 square meters (32 square feet) of Arctic summer sea ice. Or the changes could easily backfire. This year’s regional sales meeting in Cleveland might have been one of the “COVID casualties.” Next year’s? Barcelona or bust.

Which way things might go is anyone’s guess. What’s clear is that government policy will play a large role. That policy ought to be guided by facts rather than fear, and it ought to ensure that the world steers clear from some of the all-too predictable worst-case climate scenarios—something many countries are so far failing to do with COVID-19. Like COVID-19, climate change, too, thrives on discounting expertise and dismantling basic social protections.

Addressing climate change isn’t easy. A return to fact-based policymaking, however, can at least make it possible. This pandemic ought to inspire a fundamental rethinking of the role of science and knowledge, the importance of competent leadership including global cooperation, and how the fate of the most vulnerable anywhere affects the fortunes of everyone everywhere. If it does, its true benefits to the climate will last well after the world gets back to work.

Gernot Wagner teaches climate economics at New York University, is a co-author of Climate Shock and writes the Risky Climate column for Bloomberg Green.

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