What Will Covid-19’s Environmental Impact Be?
Before Covid-19 took the spotlight on the international stage (as measured by volume of news coverage), climate change, climate impacts, and climate-related protests garnered heavy discussion. How has the pandemic impacted debates over our approach to the environment and climate issues?
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We reviewed dozens of the highest-credibility articles on climate issues from 28 outlets across the political spectrum to see how Covid-19 has impacted the environment, how perceptions of those impacts have shifted months later, and whether the pandemic will lead to long-term changes in human environmental behavior and the way we think about the climate.
Early Impacts of Covid-19
There have been few cheerful headlines during the months of pandemic and lockdown, but one bright spot early on was the apparent positive effects stay-at-home orders were having on the environment. Things like drastic reductions in air pollution and the return of wildlife to city streets were hailed as unexpected positive environmental outcomes from the Covid-19 era.
Source: IEA/Bloomberg Green
Zooming out, the cumulative change in human behavior thanks to lockdowns led to a projected 8% reduction in annual CO2 emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. Similarly, global energy demand could be set to fall by 6%, a drop seven times greater than following the global financial crisis of 2008. At the end of March, global road transport was nearly half the 2019 average, and by May some airlines reduced their capacity by as much as 90%. Air quality improved in many places as a result of reduced pollution: “satellite data from NASA showed a 30% drop in air pollutants in the northeastern section of the U.S. during March.”
Nitrogen Oxide Levels Over Northeastern U.S.
For climate scientists, this is all good news: the UN Environment Programme estimates that the planet will need to achieve a 7.6% annual reduction in CO2 emissions through 2030 in order to have a chance of limiting global temperatures from rising 1.5C globally in the long term — a widely recognized goal.
Optimists and activists alike seized on the opportunity, asserting that Covid-19 represents an unparalleled opportunity to “build back better” by pursuing societal change at an unprecedented scale to combat climate change, a sentiment suggested on the right and left.
The rationale goes that the pandemic may create a global pause that allows us to reconsider fundamental tenets of how society functions. Does everyone really need to travel to a physical office everyday? Can we reduce the amount that we fly? Is it time to reimagine our dependency on fossil fuels? The opportunity, many urged, may not come again.
Longer-term Outlooks Suggest Covid-19 May Actually Do More Harm than Good
Yet as the pandemic proceeds with varying levels of reopening and many have adapted to lockdown life, gloomier interpretations have appeared. Far from leading to more fundamental changes in the way we think and behave in relation to the environment, activity seems to be rapidly returning to the status quo and beyond.
“Green measures account for less than 0.2% of the total coronavirus-related stimulus spending allocated by the world’s 50 largest economies.” - Bloomberg Green
The total emissions reduction reduction for 2020 has already started to backslide, now projected at somewhere between 4% and 7%, and by mid-June, emissions levels had rebounded to 95% of 2019 levels, according to a study in Nature. China, for one, has already seen its emissions surpass pre-pandemic levels. Despite the huge reduction in road traffic in the early lockdown period, Americans have returned to the road in droves, with traffic reaching 90% of February levels by mid-June. Amid fears of the virus spreading via public transport, many fear an uncharacteristic surge in car traffic — a veritable “carpocalypse.”
The Covid-19 crisis has also seen governments fail to offer stimulus money to low-carbon infrastructure but take measures to protect the fossil fuel industry, an industry seen by many as unsustainably mired in debt. Such moves have been criticized on left, right, and center but are also viewed as critical to maintaining economic growth — or, rather, averting a larger decline.
“The current course for many central banks that are all too aware of the threat climate change poses to their financial systems is to nonetheless send billions of taxpayer dollars to fossil fuel companies.” - Foreign Affairs
Governments and businesses once on the cusp of more radical environmental reform following months of climate strikes and extreme climate events are now wholly preoccupied by issues of short-term survival and limited resources, leaving environmental initiatives diluted. For example, in looking at the content of first quarter earnings calls for S&P 500 companies, a study found that mentions of climate change appeared in 50% fewer calls than in the previous quarter, with reductions of 58% in energy, 53% in technology, and 69% in financial services companies.
Measures meant to protect the environment have also been rolled back for both safety and economic reasons, threatening to counteract Covid-19’s positive environmental impacts. The Trump administration issued an executive order on June 4 to waive many of the environmental proceedings previously required for new mines, highways, pipelines, and other projects. Similarly, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued limitations on the ability of states to challenge energy projects on environmental grounds, particularly through the Clean Water Act, with the “goal of promoting gas pipelines, coal terminals and other fossil fuel development.” Even simple measures made for health safety reasons, such as the removal of bans on plastic bags in many places, will have knock-on environmental impacts (perversely, cheap oil has also made plastics increasingly cheap, damaging the economic viability of recycling).
Other positive perceived outcomes, such as the return of wildlife to certain areas, have proven more complex, as there may also be an uptick in poaching of endangered species around the world as governments divert resources to other challenges. Likewise, there has been no real dividend for issues such as deforestation. For example, in the Amazon rainforest, “64 percent more land was cleared in April 2020 than in the same month last year — even though 2019 was the biggest year for deforestation in more than a decade.”
Photo: Alexander Gerst
The juxtaposition of the above suggests that the temporary environmental benefits of Covid-19 will be short lived, if they really exist at all. Rather than shifting our environmental status quo, Covid-19 might actually be reinforcing it.
A False Dawn for Environmental Reform
For those concerned with the environment and anxious to mitigate climate change, the last few months have reinforced two harsh realities: (1) climate change mitigation will require an effort on an unprecedented scale, and (2) limited resources and willpower force difficult trade-offs on government and business, often with the environment on the losing end.
Global emissions reductions this year have been truly enormous, but it’s just a drop in the bucket in terms of overall climate goals. A common target is to limit the particulate matter in the atmosphere (measured in parts per million, or ppm), as this matter contributes to the greenhouse gas effect, further warming the planet. Even a 10% reduction in global emissions this year would result in a net increase in global ppm counts, pushing global averages to 414 ppm. That means the measures to avert the worst effects of climate change which many experts think are needed will require a whole-of-society effort on the scale of the shifts that have happened during lockdown (or bigger) for year after year. A daunting task indeed.
In terms of “building back better,” it would seem that efforts to incorporate a green recovery or change in mindset into strategies to respond to Covid-19 have thus far fallen short. The pandemic and climate change share a dynamic where mitigation measures for either clash with immediate societal and economic demands. Decisions that may be prudent in the long-run — such as reducing plastic use and fossil fuel consumption — have been passed up for more pressing immediate concerns such as maintaining economic growth and keeping people employed.
“The pandemic has taught the world that the human capacity for sacrifice, even in the face of grave danger, has limits. This is an inconvenient truth that the climate movement cannot afford to ignore.” - Wall Street Journal
Unfortunately, Covid-19 does not look like it will be the environmental harbinger that some first thought. The difficulty of balancing present day challenges with over-the-horizon outcomes will remain a perennial issue.
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Written by Phillip Meylan
Phillip is a writer, editor, and researcher. Before completing his MSc in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2019, he worked as an editor and content strategist for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. When he’s not working, you can find him playing soccer, hiking, or cooking.