Will we be able to create a more sustainable economy in the world after coronavirus?
Something beautiful is happening. Not the columned deaths and illness sweeping the Earth, or the closing the borders, or the hoarding of toilet rolls, something else is afoot, seemingly.
Cities like Dhaka and New Delhi -- who are used to fighting each other to be on top of the list of the most polluted cities -- are now experiencing strikingly clean air. The longest sea beach of the world is now enjoying the dance of the pink dolphins, which was long gone. Venice’s Grand Canal is running clear. The fog of pollution has lifted in NY, Chicago, LA.
The heat-trapping carbon emissions seem to be down. But does a short-term pause as a response to the pandemic, on our normal emission levels, prove the virus will help the climate? Um, NO.
No doubt the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic is an unmatched tragedy. Hospitals are stretched to their peak; unemployment is running at an unnerving speed, and economic disaster is knocking at the door.
But this global crisis is also an inflection point for other already-existing global crises, specifically the climate crisis. Anxiety and a sense of urgency was supposed shift from the faster-moving crisis and settle on the slower one instead, but it seems like the transference is working in the opposite trend.
There is a good reason for concern, that despite the clean air, clean canals, and dancing dolphins coming back to the sea, this epidemic has some disastrous aftermath for the climate.
The pollution is down, but that does not necessarily mean we have solved the climate crisis. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has already declared a global economic recession, as the spread of the new coronavirus has curtailed economic activity across the globe. After the critical phase passes, carbon emissions, as well as industrial production, are likely to skyrocket.
This economic depression will be a prime cause to slow down the long-overdue transition to clean energy. Renewable energy projects will face difficulties to secure financing, some of them are already stumbling because of the disruptions of the global supply chain caused by the Chinese shutdown. Lowering the price of oil is also bad news for the climate. Cheaper energy sources often encourage consumers to use it less efficiently.
This pandemic has some deep-rooted effects on the most macro levels. Research on climate around the world is being slowed down or brought it to a standstill, funds are being cut short. No one knows when everything is going to start up again. Higher chances of the cancellation of COP26 in Glasgow will very likely slow down the already sluggish international climate actions.
What happened in China in 2008 after the global crisis could be an indication of what will happen after the Covid-19 crisis. China has already indicated adopting some stimulus measures to relax the environmental assessment and inspection to accelerate its economy, which will cause even more emissions than the pre-Covid-19 period.
We can see a similarity between the coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis. Both have been worsened by alarming levels of inaction, and both demand draconian action to minimize the loss.
The curve of Covid-19 will flatten someday, but what about the planet-emissions curve that will race upward with even more speed in coming days?
So, the real question is whether we will be able to create a more functioning economy that strengthens people without endangering the lives on Earth, including our own precious ones. The answer depends on the giant economies like China and the United States to utilize this moment to act out green growth policies or continue to fuel up the fossil fuel business.
Shooha Tabil is a climate researcher.