COVID-19 versus Climate Change

Drop in greenhouse gas emissions due to COVID-19. Credit: Forster et al. (source)

This year has seen a record drop in greenhouse gas emissions, a welcome figure in the context of a years-long trend of increasing emissions. However, this statistic is not the result of a concerted effort to fight climate change – it’s a byproduct of the economic shutdowns implemented in response to the global coronavirus pandemic.

Not to be confused with a declining trend in emissions, this temporary suppression is not a long-term strategy. First off, fossil fuel dependent infrastructure still remains. The energy sector has not dramatically changed, it has just been disrupted by the halted economy. A return to “normal life” would have to mean huge fundamental changes to the world’s energy infrastructure to keep emissions this low, which will definitely not be a priority once lockdowns are lifted. The fossil fuel industry is not as profitable as it is used to be, so the last thing it’s going to do is eradicate itself once COVID is under control. But what this downturn does show us, is that if a temporary halting of this system has had this effect on emissions, imagine what impact we could have on climate change if we ended this system completely?

Furthermore, we’ve seen that the economic downturn under our current context has meant further impoverishment of the world’s most vulnerable. Most working and poor people have been on their own to cope with the economic shutdown, and face increasing difficulty getting enough food, covering rent, and paying for usual expenses. And we can only expect those in charge to justify further austerity measures that hurt most of us to support big businesses affected by the shutdown.

It’s clear that we need a system that not only prioritizes the climate, but everyday people. These shutdowns show us that it is possible to lower emissions – but only through the shutting down of this economy, with a consciously planned one that benefits everybody to take its place.