Coronavirus & Climate: Silver Linings & Red Herrings

Written by Ryan McGuine //

The COVID-19 outbreak has dramatically changed daily life around the world. The global economy has ground to a halt as governments and individuals take unprecedented social distancing measures to “flatten the curve.” Everything humans do affects the natural environment in some way, and coronavirus-related changes to daily life present an interesting contrast to before the virus. For example, local ambient air pollution is lower (making for stunning images of cities like Los Angeles, Beijing, and New Delhi with blue skies), certain types of solid waste like packaging for food delivery and medical supplies are higher, and the world’s cities and oceans are quieter compared to just weeks ago.

The virus’ effect on greenhouse gases is less straightforward. COVID-19 has reduced the flow of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by driving down total energy consumption, and thus fossil fuel consumption. It is difficult to tease out the emissions reductions in real time because variations within a given year are mostly due to natural effects, but global emissions could shrink by around 4% in 2020. However, greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for a long time, so it is ultimately cumulative emissions that affects the climate. Even if the flow of carbon dioxide declines this year, there is still flow, so the total atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases will be higher in 2020 than in 2019. Further, since any virus-related reductions are probably temporary, they will make almost no difference in the long run.

There are numerous connections between COVID-19 and climate change. Both issues are made challenging because they require collective action and public buy-in — that is, action by individual countries makes little difference if most others do not act accordingly, and a country’s citizens must take an issue seriously for a country to act on it. Additionally, both issues are exponential in nature, meaning that a quantity (viral infections or carbon emissions) increases by some share of an ever-larger base. In such cases, preventing the crisis is both cheaper and less popular than responding to it, and responding to it gets harder the longer it gets delayed. Finally, COVID-19 lays bare the connection between economic activity and greenhouse gas emissions. The carbon intensity of economies tends to decrease as they become wealthier, but the fact that emissions have declined as the economy has declined indicates that there remains an important relationship between economic growth and carbon emissions.

Some have used this relationship to argue that economic activity is a problem and should be dramatically scaled back to reduce energy use and prevent harm to the planet. This is similar to arguments that global decarbonization requires preventing low-income countries from using fossil fuels, and should be rejected. Higher energy consumption is associated with higher incomes, so preventing low-energy users from consuming more energy keeps them poor. The problem is that it is currently free to pollute and expensive to be green, which creates incentives that lock in high-pollution outcomes. The solution, then, is to create a world in which it is expensive to pollute and cheap to be green using policies which reduce the cost of low-carbon sources of energy relative to carbon-intensive alternatives. Only structural changes to the way humans already live will make a dent in long-term carbon emissions.

Take note of the smogless skylines. While today’s clear skies are caused by deplorable circumstances, it is possible to have a future where economic life carries on as normal, and skylines remain clear. In such a future, most household appliances and means of transportation will be powered by electricity, and most most of that electricity will be generated by low-carbon sources of energy. Such a future need not be one of austerity and sacrifice — indeed, it can be truly awesome. But such a future requires action now.

 

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