Covid-19 and the climate: key impacts so far

March 13th, 2020

Earlier this month, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service said the recent decline in particulate matter (PM2.5) levels in China’s atmosphere was likely due to measures adopted to contain the spread of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 outbreak that originated in Hubei province compelled Chinese officials to take rigid, cautionary actions to contain it. These measures included limiting daily activities that significantly contributed to air pollution, including traffic and industry.

As a result, the world experienced a significant reduction in particulate matter pollution in February. If inhaled, these particulates can trigger or worsen respiratory diseases such as asthma.

The recent drop in emissions over China amounts to a reduction of 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide compared with emissions levels in 2019. NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) satellites have also detected a 40 per cent reduction in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels over the country.

The agencies said that they were confident that the reduced levels were at least partly related to the economic slowdown prompted by COVID-19 containment policies as the gas is predominately emitted by motor vehicles and from industrial facilities.

Other reports indicate a meaningful reduction in flight emissions due to a decline in air travels that has the aviation industry on the edge of a financial crisis.

Recent projections indicate that global aviation revenue is likely to drop by at least 11 per cent this year. The 2008 financial crash was the last time the world experienced a similar drastic reduction in greenhouse emissions.

Despite the short-term drop in emissions, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely have adverse ecological impacts in the long haul.

Photo; ionutscripcaru

Airline emissions

The precautionary measures imposed on air travels have already prompted major airlines to oppose an increase in environmental taxes proposed by the Austrian Government that include a tax on flights.

Criticising the proposed spike in eco-friendly taxes, Ryanair’s chief executive Michael O’Leary described the taxes as the “equivalent of latter-day highwaymen” during a press briefing earlier this week.

If air travels continue to plummet in 2020, experts have warned that once the pandemic passes, the sharp and sudden increase in carbon dioxide emissions will adversely impact UN emission fighting programmes.

The UN’s plan to cap emissions which obliges airlines to offset increased emissions by funding green projects, for example, may fail to reach its objectives.

The issue is that once the pandemic passes and the aviation industry bounces back to its routine, airlines would try to compensate for the financial loss experienced during the outbreak by opting out of funding eco-friendly initiatives. Activists have warned that the issue should not weaken carbon-curtailing, environmental programmes.

Speaking to The Green News, climate journalist and activist John Gibbons said that the “temporary” positive impact of COIVID-19 outbreak on carbon emissions is no cause for celebration. “I don’t see any reason for optimism arising from temporary emissions cuts due to the Coronavirus emergency.

“Special interest lobbyists are already using this emergency as an excuse to demand reductions in taxes and regulations reinforces this point,” Mr Gibbons said.

“As long as there are no rules in place to ratchet global carbon emissions steadily downwards, year after year, in line with the science, then emissions will rebound to their upward trajectory as soon as the emergency period around COVID-19 abates.”

Oil well silhouette Photo: Piqsels

Oil Prices

The global oil demand has also been affected by the rapid spread of the coronavirus disease, causing oil prices to experience their biggest overnight drop since 1991. Experts have argued that lower oil prices also have negative implications for the planet.

Faith Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency, for example, told The New York Times that the plunge in oil prices might slow the world’s transition to clean energy.

Experts have also warned that if countries like China decide to subsidise their polluting industries to cushion the blow of COVID-19 on the economy, emission levels can dramatically soar.

John Gibbons, however, says for world governments, the global pandemic must be treated as a cautionary tale with many climate lessons to learn from. “The coronavirus outbreak has shown is that, once we understand that we are in an emergency situation, governments can act decisively and dramatic change is indeed possible.

“I shudder to think what kind of climate-related catastrophe will be sufficiently extreme to force our governments to finally declare a global emergency and act accordingly, but we may find out soon enough,” Mr Gibbons added.

About the Author

Shamim Malekmian

Shamim is a Senior Reporter at The Green News and a contributing writer to the Irish Examiner, Cork Evening Echo and the Dublin Inquirer.