The coronavirus pandemic has been terrible in a hundred different ways, but unambiguously good for one thing: Humanity’s fight against climate change.
For most of us, these last three months of the pandemic (and likely many more to come) have been the most disruptive experience of our lives. We have seen our economies go into a tailspin, unemployment spiral, our social lives torn to scraps, public health systems close to collapse, and international borders shut. We have felt our personal well-being and material security becoming immensely precarious. We have had to search deep for morsels of comfort or optimism in the crisis — more time spent with the family, for instance, or greater clarity and discipline in consumption.
But, on Friday’s World Environment Day, we can also take heart that, in the last three months, we have interrupted some of the most damaging long-term trends in our relationship with the environment (trends that would otherwise render the lives of many future generations precarious).
A recent study in the journal Nature showed that the sudden curtailment of air travel, surface transport, economic activity and energy consumption because of the virus resulted in an estimated 17 percent decline in carbon dioxide emissions around the world by early April, when compared to the same period last year. Most of us who live in big cities already have some sense of this because the air seems much cleaner. In India, where I live, the lockdown supplied the finishing touches to a year of slow economic growth (not good) and high growth in clean energy from renewable sources (a positive trend). This resulted in the first year-on-year reduction in India’s carbon dioxide emissions for 40 years in the fiscal year just past.
Let’s put these statistics into perspective. Over the past decade, despite climate change rising to the top of the global agenda, there has been little meaningful change on the ground. World carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise by about 1 percent a year (meaning we were nowhere close to dealing with the problem, but rather only delaying the inevitable).
Now, even as, for the first time this century, climate change has been temporarily replaced as the most pressing challenge confronting humanity as a whole, the coronavirus crisis has led to a dramatic worldwide reduction in the activities that contributed most to climate change. It is as if the entire world woke up one morning and decided it was going to pay heed to Greta Thunberg.
But, since most of this change was involuntary, is it sustainable? Perhaps not. But the pandemic has certainly led us to ask hard questions about our lives and schooled us in practices that could lead to precisely the sort of long-term changes that will be required if we are to limit climate change to a 1.5 degrees Celsius rise in the global temperature. It is not unreasonable to believe, for example, that it will be many years before aviation and surface transport, which contribute so significantly to emissions, return to their pre-pandemic levels. Human beings will also scale back significantly on nonessential consumption.
And, in a way, this is a boon to governments, for the pandemic has saved them the trouble of initiating the hard policy decisions required in the fight against climate change — and it has changed human behavior universally and simultaneously without the need for a global agreement. A wrenching shock that affects every member of society also generates the space for cooperation.
As we slowly emerge from our lockdowns, we do so with a new awareness: Our life is much less social than before, but our point of view is much more socialized. When we wear a face mask less to protect ourselves than to protect others, we are immediately bound to those around us by the shared consciousness that the safety of any individual depends on responsibility shared and honored by all. That is also what we need in the fight against climate change.
The challenge for government and policymakers, then, is to convert this unanticipated demand shock and behavioral alteration into meaningful structural change. But the risk is that, with economies slipping into recession and unemployment rising steeply, governments could actually be tempted to abandon their commitment to climate change goals made in the pre-pandemic era. Some of them, citing national interest, could cut their ties to multilateral institutions, the way US President Donald Trump has done with the World Health Organization, and reject international accords like the Paris Agreement on climate change.
A wrenching shock that affects every member of society also generates the space for cooperation.
In particular, the increased extraction of natural resources — a major source of air and environmental pollution — could be a way for governments to deliver a sudden boost to the economy and to attract foreign investment. India has already taken such a step as part of last month’s economic stimulus package, inviting foreign investment in the coal production sector, setting a goal of doubling coal production by 2024, and committing to huge investments in upgrading coal transportation infrastructure. These goals, if realized, would actually set India on a more dangerous path for the next few decades — all as a result of decisions made under pressure from the pandemic. And other governments could follow suit.
Nobody could have foreseen that a global pandemic could bring about a sudden inflection point in the scale of activities that lead to climate change. This World Environment Day, even as we set out to defeat the virus, we should also pledge to take the opportunity it has given us to envision a different way of living and cooperating, so that future generations may enjoy all the pleasures of our incredible planet.