How the COVID-19 pandemic shows that humanity can reverse climate change

By Ruan van Heerden
Digital Producer

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, smog disappears and waters run clearer.

Not only does the prospect of our uncertain future reveal the roles humanity play in the planet’s environment, but our true power and resolve to finally reverse the course of what could one day become the worst pandemic we’ll ever face — climate change.

As emissions fall, air quality around the world is skyrocketing. The climate consequences of the coronavirus pandemic go even further.

Back in February, an analysis by the Carbon Brief climate group found that as the pandemic caused a massive blow to China’s economy. Its heavy industries shuttered and emissions from the country plummeted by an incredible 25%. 

Another Carbon Brief analysis in early April estimated that globally this year, emissions could fall by 5.5% from 2019 levels. That figure may seem low, given that fewer cars are on roads and industries have stalled, but with context, it’s genuinely impressive. 

Until the COVID-19 global pandemic, emissions have been steadily increasing by a few per cent year-on-year. That’s happening even though the world’s nations pledged to individually reduce their emissions as part of the Paris Agreement, with the ultimate goal of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial global temperatures.

Clear water is seen in Venice’s canals due to less tourists, motorboats and pollution, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, ahead of Earth Day in Venice, Italy, April 16, 2020. REUTERS/Manuel Silvestri

The 5.5% figure tops the 3% reduction in emissions that followed the 2008 financial crash when economies also slowed and people travelled less. But emissions bounced right back as the economy recovered. 

“Broadly speaking, the only real times we’ve seen large emission reductions globally in the past few decades is during major recessions, but even then, the effects are often smaller than you think. It generally doesn’t lead to any sort of systematic change.”

Zeke Hausfather, the director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, which advocates for climate action.

In some ways, the warning signs of ecosystem collapse – red tides along Florida’s beaches, coral bleaching in Australia year after year, even the annihilation of global insect populations, are easy to dismiss in day-to-day life, and even harder to act upon. Our collective impact on nature may register, but our collective ability to address the damage we’ve done to nature has seemed impossible. Until now.

When the factories come back to life and airplanes start flying again, emissions will inevitably (and regrettably) pick back up. But we will have the choice to learn from COVID-19 to live better in our ecosystems, and within the greater natural system of Earth. 

We need to listen to climate scientists and policy advisors to win the climate change fight too. A greater trust in experts of all types takes us in the right direction.

There are challenges to be met, curves to be flattened. Every action counts in this calculus. Recognising the roles we have to play alone and together, we can be better stewards of ourselves, and Earth itself.

Visit the official COVID-19 government website to stay informed: sacoronavirus.co.za