Coronavirus 'Really Not the Way You Want To Decrease Emissions'

Cheap oil, lower investment in renewables and a post-virus rebound will likely offset the emissions drop, but there are climate lessons in the response to the virus.

As the global economy shudders in reaction to the coronavirus, lessons are emerging about what that response can—and cannot—tell us about fighting climate change.

Economists and policy analysts say they are most concerned about how the current financial disruption could harm the efforts of countries, international organizations and companies to reduce emissions. They think any drop in emissions tied to the virus will be short-lived, while the continuing drop in oil prices could encourage more consumption and hurt demand for low- or no-carbon products like electric vehicles.

At the same time, the response to COVID-19 is demonstrating that in the face of a large and imminent threat, it is possible to get people to change their behavior—something climate change activists have been trying to do for decades. Some of those changes—an increase in telecommuting, for example—have climate benefits that could last beyond the current crisis.

"The plus side is, if there's a sense of social cooperation that emerges from this in response to a threat, that could be a very good sign for communities and leaders to come together," said Michael Lazarus, U.S. director at the Stockholm Environment Institute.

And yet, emissions concerns are by necessity secondary to managing an escalating public health crisis whose immediacy is in contrast to the way the public often views the march of climate change.

A Model for Long-Term Change?

The closest thing to a positive development from the coronavirus crisis may be how governments have mobilized to get people to change their behavior, such as encouraging the use of hand sanitizer and the avoidance of public events, among many other steps big and small. This is in contrast to the difficulty that environmental advocates have long had in getting people to make changes to consume fewer resources.

Some of the changes in response to coronavirus could have enduring climate benefits. One example is how many employers are now encouraging people to work from home, which cuts emissions from driving to work. As employees and workers get used to this, they are more likely to want to do it more.

"I'd be surprised if there weren't at least some instances where this marks a sea change," said David Comerford, a behavioral economist at Stirling University in Scotland.

He is especially optimistic that some good will come from what climate advocates are learning about how the public responds to crisis and what messages work in communicating urgency.

But as is also true with climate change, people with low incomes are the most likely to suffer while the affluent have an easier time dealing with the threat, in this case the virus, said Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at New York University.

"It's not going to be me dying, it's going to be the already-poor, already-vulnerable, elderly sick people who will die," he said.

Lazarus also sees potential for harm if societies see the virus as "foreign" and respond by trying to build social and economic barriers, as opposed to coming together.

Temporary Economic Declines, Long-Term Challenges

One of the greatest hazards for climate policy related to the coronavirus is that governments, international organizations and companies may have fewer resources and less time to focus on other thorny problems.

Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, made this point while talking this week about his office's new forecast that the world will see the first full-year decline in oil production in more than a decade, a drop that reflects the decrease in demand as coronavirus keeps people from traveling or even going to work.

"The impact of the coronavirus on oil markets may be temporary," he said on Twitter. "But the longer-term challenges facing producer countries are not going to go away, especially those heavily dependent on oil and gas revenues."

In those countries, "sustained low prices could make it almost impossible to fund essential areas such as education, health care and public sector employment," he said.

The IEA report warned that energy companies are likely to struggle to finance projects, which could have a big effect on renewable energy, since solar, wind and other renewable technologies make up an increasing share of such companies' plans.

Other industries also are apt to run into difficulties paying for their part in the transition to clean energy. For example, the economic disruption caused by the outbreak has probably complicated the airline industry's plan to establish mandatory carbon offsets by 2027. Planes emptied by the virus have left airlines with little revenue to invest in projects aimed at reducing carbon elsewhere to make up for their flights' emissions.

The industry is now focused on mere survival. The International Air Transport Association projects that the global revenue losses for passenger airlines could reach up to $113 billion this year, with over $21 billion of that hitting U.S. airlines.

"The turn of events as a result of COVID-19 is almost without precedent," said Alexandre de Juniac, the trade group's CEO and director general, in a statement. "In little over two months, the industry's prospects in much of the world have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. It is unclear how the virus will develop, but ... this is a crisis."

Real Emissions Drop, But With Unexpected Consequences

The evidence that, at least temporarily, the arrival of COVID-19 has cut greenhouse gas emissions—in some cases drastically—is clear. A report published by Carbon Brief found that emissions in China had dropped by at least 25 percent in February compared to the same period in 2019.

But that same report also indicated that the long-term reduction of emissions probably would be much less, and depend on how quickly China's economy gets back to normal. This would be in line with a long history of emissions falling during economic turmoil and then rebounding to a level that more than offsets the decline.

World Carbon Emissions Keep Bouncing Back

The drop in emissions could end up being just a blip that contributes to other problems, said Samantha Gross, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. One of those problems is that falling costs of oil and other fossil fuels could discourage investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy, and could encourage people to use more oil and gas.

"I actually worry about environmentalists getting too happy and worked up about the fact that emissions are going down, because this is really not the way you want to decrease emissions," she said.

There isn't much evidence that people are happy about it, but some experts still worry about the message it would send if such a sentiment became common.

"There are lots of things that might be good for the environment but are bad for humanity," said Comerford.

He added that he doesn't want a crisis that happens to cut emissions to be confused with an actual strategy for cutting emissions.

"There is low hanging fruit in terms of cuts to emissions that we can easily and very affordably make with really no sacrifice to quality of life," he said.

InsideClimate News reporters Nicholas Kusnetz and Kristoffer Tigue contributed to this report. Top photo credit: Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images

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