Pandemic: Unintentional Benefits

By Robert Atkinson | Project Manager, Associate

This post is a follow-up to the article "Quelling Climate Change with Net-Zero Carbon"


The fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day was celebrated earlier this year around the theme of Climate Action. The previous year, 2019, had witnessed a global drive from a largely youth-based movement to address this emergency, and several countries were poised to enact climate legislation in 2020 aimed at curbing emissions. It seemed like this time, finally, we would meet the greatest global challenge of our era head on with ambition, determination, and will. Then the pandemic hit, and the global response, voluntary and mandatory lockdowns, shut down multiple sectors of the economy worldwide, particularly curtailing freedom of movement and travel. Although economically devastating for families, businesses, and local and global markets, not to mention the cost in human suffering, loss, and separation, the response has demonstrated that we are capable of swift global action and has led to unintentional advantages for the environment.

Research from the journal Nature Climate Change shows that daily emissions have dropped by 17% since April. Aviation, one of the economic sectors most impacted by the lockdowns, accounts for 10% of the decrease, while emissions from surface transport, such as cars and buses, accounts for almost half of that decrease, and emissions from industry and power sectors together account for a further 43%. The result on atmospheric pollution has been so dramatic that its impacts can be viewed from space. The absence of cars and changes in human activity has even led to birds and animals moving deeper within cities, leading to unprecedented sightings in major cities as animals adapt to the absence of people.

The tangible results are positive for people too. However, although we welcome cleaner air and a more balanced relationship with nature, we know these are only temporary wins for the environment. The opening of economies and easing of lockdown restrictions has already reversed some of the gains, with much of the rebound coming from road transport (ironically, people are relying less on public transport due to contagion fears). Increased activity in industry and power sectors will not be far behind.

Since the beginning of the pandemic the global demand for oil has decreased by a third—more than 30 million barrels per day. The ongoing and escalating price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia for market share has seen intense overproduction, with the unprecedented situation in May when oil actually recorded negative prices worth less than the cost of extraction. All that cheap oil now available as post-lockdown demands increase may lessen people’s motivation to curb emissions. 

Impending Dangers

The air may be cleaner now, but blue skies are temporary. If we return to business as usual, the build-up of greenhouse gases will continue, and globally temperatures will continue to rise. While the cumulative impact of the economic shutdown will probably mean emissions are reduced by 7% globally this year, it is worth noting that last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report stated that we would need to cut global emissions by 7.6% every year for the next decade to prevent global temperatures from rising by 2.7°F.

For those still thinking a 2.7°F rise is no big deal, think again. What would it mean for the planet? We would see mountain glaciers and rivers (the planet’s drinking water supply) start to disappear, more landslides in mountainous regions as the permafrost that holds them together melts away, and the release of embedded methane gas in the ice core surrounding the Arctic Circle, which saw a record temperatures high of 100.4°F in June of this year. Sea levels could rise a yard by 2100, displacing 10% of the world's population and creating climate refugees in rich and poor countries that would be economically and socially catastrophic.

But simply shutting down our economic activity indefinitely to meet an abstract goal (whether it be reducing coronavirus reproduction numbers or climate change) is, of course, unrealistic and undesirable. And analysis shows that social response alone (working from home, driving less and not flying), will not drive the deep and sustained reductions needed to reach net-zero emissions. We need achievable, structured solutions across economic, transportation, and energy systems that ensure we can continue to live well as a society in a way that can be maintained through future generations.

The greatest danger is to the long term environmental goals outlined by the gathering of political and economic leaders in January 2020 at the World Economic Forum. In Davos, there was a clear consensus that G20 countries must show progress through enacting legislation and investment in green technology to meet targets set by the 2015 Paris agreement. G20 nations account for 78% of all emissions, but 15 of the G20 members have not committed to a timeline for net-zero emissions. With countries in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic focused on stimulating economic recovery and warding off unemployment, there is a danger that those goals will be abandoned, downscaled, or deprioritized.

A Major Reset

However, viewed objectively the situation need not be so bleak. It seemed unlikely prior to 2020 that achieving environmental goals globally could be met without major changes to social lifestyles and the economies that underpin them. But COVID-19 caused a major reset—a level of unprecedented global response that forces a re-evaluation of just how unsustainable and fragile we are to outside challenges. With that has come a new awareness and potentially new opportunities. What has this extraordinary moment meant for society, the economy, and the environment—the very pillars that define sustainable action?

The pandemic did what no other phenomenon has done before, short of war. Although the speed and extent of implementation differed between countries, the potential threat was understood and acted on accordingly. Broadly, the pandemic did the impossible—paused most economic activity to prevent a continued spread and enacted non-partisan political solutions to manage the transition period for workers, while developing medium- to long-term adaptation strategies to protect future social and economic activity. Where there is political will, a clear understanding of what we as individuals can do, and international economic, scientific, and technological cooperation, solutions can be found.

The first step is to build resilience to future calamities, which ties directly to the goal of net-zero emissions. Addressing the volatility of fossil fuel markets, with their difficulties of supply, fluctuating costs, environmental degradation, and extraction under politically questionable regimes would be a good start. The ability to draw power from sustainable sources will not only be a way of decoupling energy sources from carbon emissions, but will stimulate a local technological and employment boom that could replace an aging infrastructure, while building an energy independence better equipped in dealing with the potential of any future disruptions. Furthermore, new investment mechanisms like green bonds can yield three to eight times the economic return of fossil fuel bonds. Alongside this, research indicates that an aggressive employment and reskilling strategy has the potential to create 42 million new jobs within this sector.

Next up—behavior. The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated how quickly action can be taken to address a global crisis, including changes to our daily life. Consuming and traveling less due to lockdown restrictions created an unintended mass social experiment with surprising results. In the UK, a recent UK YouGov survey during lockdown suggests that fewer than one in 10 want a full return to how things were. Of respondents, 51% confirmed they had noticed cleaner air, and 27% said they had seen more wildlife since the lockdown began. Forty percent said they felt a stronger sense of community in their local area since the virus shutdown had reduced the wider circle of normal activity, while 39% said they had been more in touch with friends and family. Post-lockdown they wanted all these changes to continue. That this was reflected across the political spectrum in the UK is a compelling indicator that climate change is beginning to transcend political issues.

"Of respondents, 51% confirmed they had noticed cleaner air, and 27% said they had seen more wildlife since the lockdown began."

Governments with strong legislation in place that encourages green investment and prioritizes investment in initiatives to encourage zero-carbon goals are critically important. With governments launching stimulus packages to support families and industries affected by the virus, coupling that investment with conditions aimed at meeting climate obligations puts the onus of responsibility back in the hands of businesses. Countries like Germany, France, and the UK all have ambitious zero-carbon goals for this decade and recognize the opportunity to not just prop up ailing enterprises but enable their transformation to better meet the climate challenges of the 21st century.

Conclusion

Earth Day 2020, was a great opportunity to gauge how much of a stake we all have in this planet and its future by taking action on the climate emergency. And it was easy to understand the environmental problems of individual countries and their responses as separate issues. But If COVID-19 has illustrated anything, it has shown how globally interconnected we truly are, and how cooperative action is possible and imperative across worldwide economic and social systems to achieve a zero-carbon future.


Robert Atkinson

Project Manager & Associate

Based in IA’s London office, Rob Atkinson is a sustainability/wellness subject matter expert and frequent blog contributor. With over 20 years of design industry experience, he has worked on projects in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.


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