By Nathan Reid
In less than 6 months since the beginning of the year, 3.5 billion people have been placed in lockdown conditions due to the spread of coronavirus.
A worldwide lockdown has the potential to spark a decrease of 0.3% in global CO2 levels, with a 2.5-billion-ton reduction form the fossil fuel industry during 2020. But there is a huge risk that this enormous step forward could be written off as an anomaly, as the world returns to normal.
This sharp short-term decrease, and subsequent swift increase has been seen before as a consequence of the 2008/09 financial crisis. Global GDP dropped by 1% as a result of the crisis and greenhouse gas emissions followed suit with a 1.3% decrease, the following year in 2010 carbon emissions increased by 6%.
The drop in carbon following the financial crash was unrivalled until 2020. This year its been predicted that emissions will fall by 4-8%, the equivalent of 2-3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas. According to the IEA (International Energy Agency) global electricity demand will drop by 5% this year, resulting in a knock-on effect on global coal demand which is expected to fall by 8%. This drop is the equivalent of losing the entire energy demand of India.
In order for the world to stay on track for to stay under 1.5°C this century, the world needs similar cuts for the foreseeable future. “If COVID-19 leads to a drop in emissions of around 5% in 2020 then that is the sort of reduction we need every year until net-zero emissions are reached around 2050.” said Glen Peters from Cicero (Centre for International Climate Research) while being interviewed by the BBC. A reduction of that magnitude may be hard to achieve, even more so now that the long-term discussion of climate change has been side-lined for the more pressing concern of saving lives during the pandemic.
The banning of mass gatherings has hampered the usual physical protests about the environment that we have become accustomed to in the previous years, such as the Extinction Rebellion protests in London and Edinburgh in 2019. The largest blow to climate activism has been the postponement of COP26 in Glasgow from March to November. COP is the UN International Conference on Climate Change and draws around 30,000 world delegates, climate scientists and campaigners to help implement policies associated with reducing the effect of climate change. The failure of COP25 in Madrid last year to finalise key emissions targets from the Paris Climate Accord in 2015 has made COP26 the most important; the pandemic could not have hit a worse time for long term climate planning.
Climate change may have been replaced in the short term by the pandemic; but the message of working from home may have long term implications.
Psychologists say that is takes 6-8 weeks for a new routine to manifest and become normal. The UK has been in lockdown for 10 weeks and the resulting behavioural changes have the potential to translate into a long-term reduction of emissions from the transport sector which makes up 23% of global emissions. Sales of bikes in the UK have risen by 15% which has lead city planners in London to increase cycle lanes and pedestrianisation of the centre of the city in the long term.
The OECD has recommended that governments channel financial support to public transport and increase the development of renewable energy. In 2019, 37% of UK electricity was generated by renewables and will increase regardless of the pandemic. The approval of a 900-acre solar farm in Kent, the largest in the UK showcases this commitment. It will power 91,000 homes and include the worlds largest energy storage system. The Energy Secretary Alok Sharma has said that the project will be a world leader in solar power and storage.
In essence, we have reached a precipice not just in the UK but globally to finally exercise extreme action on climate change. The covid-19 outbreak has lead to rapid change, which must continue but target a different enemy. It may occur over a longer term, but it will eventually be more deadly and more disruptive than any pandemic we have experienced. We have been given a perfect opportunity to implement real change, we cannot let it go to waste.