Impact of COVID-19 on Climate Change: A Hope for Better Future? | Adamas University

Impact of COVID-19 on Climate Change: A Hope for Better Future?

Covid-19, Environment

Impact of COVID-19 on Climate Change: A Hope for Better Future?

Human civilization over the entire globe is going through a critical period due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even at the beginning of year 2020, it was impossible to imagine a situation where over the greater part of the world population is confined at home, the roads and highways are almost empty, most of the airplanes are grounded at airports, railway stations are empty and most of the production factories halt their productions. However, that is the present scenario the world is experiencing. The COVID-19 was first identified in December 2019 in China. With time, it has spread in more than 188 countries and territories around the globe. The World Health Organization declared it as a global pandemic on 11 March 2020. Everyday, the death toll due to this pandemic is making a new record. As of July 29, 2020 roughly 1.7 crore people got infected and 6.6 lakh died world-wide. In India, the numbers are around 15.4 lakh and 34.3 thousand respectively. Most of the countries employed various majors including different levels of lockdowns and restrictions to contain the outbreak of COVID-19. All of a sudden the human race all over the world felt a sudden jerk. Almost every sector, except the health and security and emergency services, suddenly experienced a rapid slowdown.

COVID-19 impact on climate:

The slowdown in different sectors has an important consequence on the climate change scenario. The pandemic leads to the largest drop in the global CO2 emission in history. Confinement of population at home drastically reduced the use of transport, consumption of energy and industrial activities. In fact, energy production (~44%), industry (~22%) and surface transport (~21%) are the main sources of CO2 emission. According to the April 2020 report published by International Energy Agency (IEA), Global CO2 emissions are expected to decline by 8%, or almost 2.6 gigatonnes (Gt), to levels of 10 years ago. According to that report, “Such a reduction would be the largest ever, six times larger than the previous record reduction of 0.4 Gt in 2009 due to the financial crisis and twice as large as the combined total of all previous reductions since the end of World War II.” A recent study published in Nature Climate Change journal indicated a decrease in daily global fossil CO2 emission by around 17% (~17 metric tons) by the early April 2020 in comparison to the mean (100 metric tons) 2019 levels.

The reduction in CO2 emission due to COVID-19 is not completely unexpected. In history, whenever any global disaster (including economic crisis, epidemic or natural disaster) had a huge impact on the global economy or human health, a temporary downfall was observed in the curve of carbon emission. However, the impact of COVID-19 will certainly go far away than all the previous records.

Evolution of global energy-related CO2 emission (in Gt): (top) annual emissions, and (bottom) annual change. The red dot in the top panel and the red bar in the bottom panel are the respective projected values for 2020. All the global crises in the history led to temporary drops in the emission. Source: Carbon Brief Report

Can COVID-19 solve the climate crisis?

Now the most relevant question arises is: can this drop of CO2 emission due to COVID-19 solve the climate crisis? The answer is no. Of course this emission drop will have some impact, but that is not sufficient to stop the climate crisis in the long term. This is completely a temporary situation, and could not be a sustainable solution. Longer lock-down results in greater reduction of emission. The period and level of lockdown will depend upon the consequences of COVID-19 in the upcoming days. Practically hard lockdown can not sustain for a longer duration due to socio-economic reasons. With time, everything will slowly get back to their normal pace, and the CO2 emission is expected to follow its pre-COVID footprint. Basically, it would be the same system that was functioning before the pandemic, which temporarily slowed down for some time. In fact, most of countries have already withdrawn several restrictions.

If we look back in the history, the footprints of all the earlier global crises in reducing CO2 emission were temporary, and the emission levels were restored after end of the crises. This would also be the case for the present pandemic.

The short-term reduction in emission will hardly reduce the present CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. The present concentration not only depends on the emission of the present year, but also the cumulative impact of emissions from all the previous years. According to the Global Carbon Budget 2019, the CO2 concentration in air was 408.38±0.1 ppm in 2018, which was approximately 277 ppm in 1750, at the beginning of the industrial era. According to this Budget, the energy-related CO2 emission was raised from 9.3 Gt in 1960 to the projected value of around 36.8±1.8 Gt in 2019.  This indicates the 2.6 Gt reduction in CO2 emission is not enough to solve the climate crisis. To reduce the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, the total emission needs to be smaller than the absorption.  And of course, that process needs to be continued for several years. Note that, a major portion of the atmospheric CO2 is absorbed primarily by ocean, land and forest. So, increasing emission is significantly affecting the health of the ocean and land as well.

Future steps

In order to restrict climate change over the long term scenario, we must move to a sustainable solution, which was committed by various countries during the 2015 Paris Agreement.  To avoid devastating impact of climate change, the countries committed to pursue efforts to restrict global average temperature to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this commitment, the emission needs to be dropped by 7.6% every year in this decade. But unfortunately, the emission never reduced in the subsequent years after the agreement; rather it increased by 1.5% in 2017, 2.1% in 2018 and is projected to increase 0.6% in 2019.

The projected CO2 emission drop of 8% due to COVID-19 would fulfill the target for this year. But, for the upcoming years, we have to take the responsibility to fulfill our commitment following the pathways recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The COVID-19 might have a good consequence in reducing CO2 emission, but at the same time, it has made serious damage in the economic health of the countries. Recovering the economy would again increase the emission. Therefore, each step towards economic recovery would be very crucial. We have to restore the broken health of the economy but keeping in mind our commitment towards restricting climate change. We need to find ways for a green economic recovery that would not deviate from our commitment to save the climate. We need to decide steps to execute plans in action and turn ambition into reality.

We all want to save the climate of this planet, but of course not through a pandemic. It is very difficult, but still we can succeed to save our climate only if we respect our commitments. Otherwise, our resolution made during the Paris Agreement will never turn into reality. That would probably be our biggest failure to present a better climate to our future generations.

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