What impact will coronavirus have on climate change?

Mike Bebernes
·Editor

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

In nations around the world, everyday life has come to a grinding halt as part of efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus. City streets sit empty. Factories are shuttered. Planes sit idly on runways. Traffic on major freeways has disappeared.

An unintended side effect of the lockdowns to curb coronavirus has been a significant decrease in emissions. Air pollutants from Chinese factories dropped dramatically when manufacturing in parts of the country shut down. Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions could drop by as much as 24 percent this year, one analyst found. The notoriously smoggy skies over Los Angeles have been clear for weeks.

The global shutdown caused by the virus has inadvertently become the “largest scale experiment ever” in the reduction of greenhouse gases, said an expert with the European Space Agency.

Why there’s debate

Not even the most zealous environmentalist would downplay the enormous health impacts of the coronavirus, but some see opportunity within the crisis to make major progress in preventing drastic outcomes from climate change. The dramatic changes in daily life that people have taken in recent weeks show that the world is capable of making adjustments needed to limit climate change, some argue. It’s possible that many people will continue parts of the energy-friendly lifestyle they’ve become used to during social distancing, such as teleworking or limiting food waste.

Some green energy advocates see an opportunity to create a more sustainable global economy after the pandemic has ended. Governments will likely need to spend enormous amounts of money to recover from the downturn caused by the virus. Focusing that spending on renewable energy infrastructure could help reduce reliance on fossil fuels and provide high-quality jobs for millions of workers who are unemployed, some argue.

Others say that the crisis could be a major impediment to meaningful action on climate change. Emissions levels aren’t expected to stay low once the outbreak subsides — and they may even increase afterward, especially if oil prices stay low. It’s possible that governments will abandon environmental concerns as they put all their efforts into staving off the pandemic and reviving the economy. Leaders in China and Europe are reportedly reconsidering carbon reduction initiatives in response to the virus. On Tuesday, the Trump administration followed through on a previously planned move to rollback auto emission standards.

Some experts fear an extended economic downturn could cause funding for green energy projects and scientific research to evaporate.

Perspectives

Optimists

The virus has shown we’re capable of the bold changes needed to stop climate change

“A bold, world-wide climate policy would not be like the coronavirus response in the details or objectives, but the scale is about right. … If we can completely overhaul whole countries in a matter of days to fight off a pandemic, we could do the same thing to forestall disastrous climate change.” — Ryan Cooper, The Week

Economic recovery creates opportunity for a Green New Deal

“With politicians newly willing to spend, [economic recovery] could build a carbon-neutral, significantly stronger and fairer society — and put millions to work doing it.” — Kate Aronoff, New Republic

The crisis shows the flaws in our current economic system

“One may argue that the pandemic is part of climate change and therefore, our response to it should not be limited to containing the spread of the virus. What we thought was ‘normal’ before the pandemic was already a crisis and so returning to it cannot be an option.” — Vijay Kolinjivadi, Al Jazeera

The virus is a teachable moment for the threat of climate change

“If there’s any silver lining in this mess, it’s that the coronavirus pandemic is teaching us a valuable lesson about the perils of ignoring destructive processes — and perhaps even larger, longer-term disasters — that increase exponentially. Even if growth looks mild in the moment … it will soon enough be severe. In other words, delay is the enemy.” — Howard Kunreuther and Paul Slovic, Politico

Workers may choose to continue working from home after the pandemic ends

“We’re all learning how remote meetings, panels and other events work. To the extent that companies stick with these habits once we’re all able to work and travel like normal again, these changes could have a more lasting impact on our energy use, particularly in transportation.” — Amy Harder, Axios

Coronavirus has shown how fragile our society is and how capable we are of solving big problems

“The pandemic has awakened us from our slumber. It is letting us see the real consequences of denial. That may be its most important lesson — allowing us the insight, strength and compassion to build a resilient and robust future.” — Adam Frank for NBC News

Skeptics

The money needed to fund green energy projects may dry up

“A global recession as a result of coronavirus shutdowns could also slow or stall the shift to clean energy. If capital markets lock up, it will become difficult for companies to secure financing for planned solar, wind and electric grid projects, and it could tank proposals for new projects.” — Meehan Crist, New York Times

Lawmakers’ late response to coronavirus is a bad sign for climate change

“Perhaps this pandemic will teach lawmakers about the perils of waiting to act until it is too late. Or maybe it will simply give them a glimpse into a future where everyone and everything is endangered by a threat we will not take seriously until it is already killing us.” — Mark Joseph Stern, Slate

Stimulus money may go to heavy-polluting industries

“It’s possible that a lot of that money could easily be poured into high-carbon industries, which will mean that we could actually end up compounding the climate crisis through how we address the COVID-19 outbreak.” — Clean energy advocate Mohamed Adow to Reuters

Stopping climate change requires action, not inaction

“The truth is that fixing global warming will not be easy, but it will not look like this. It will look like cleaner technologies, different sources of power — wind, not coal — cleaner, denser, more-walkable cities. It will look like plant-based diets, more trees, electric planes, and so on. It looks like carbon taxes and regulating (and prosecuting) of still-powerful fossil fuel interests. It looks like action, not inaction; taking to the streets, not staying home.” — John Sutter, CNN

The environment will take a back seat to economic concerns

“If the global economy crashes, emissions will drop short term as we produce fewer goods, but climate action will slow. Employment trumps environment in politics. If companies are hurting, they may delay or even cancel climate-friendly policies that require investments up front.” — Earth system scientist Rob Jackson to CNBC

Lower emissions are only temporary

“If other global crises, like financial bubbles, are any indication, this is but a temporary dip in emissions. In fact, to make up for lost money, nations like China will roar back with capitalistic mania. Modern economies halt for no disease — at least not in the long term.” — Matt Simon, Wired

The public was moved by the imminent threat of the virus. Climate change is too gradual.

“Our brains simply are not wired to engage with a danger that is not acutely present. We are activated by threats that could come for us tomorrow or next week, like this virus, much more than we are moved by an inestimably greater danger that moves toward us, inexorably, but at a slower pace.” — Thom Krystofiak, Des Moines Register

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Paul Souders/Getty Images