When COVID-19 lockdowns began, climate scientists were horrified at the unfolding tragedy, but also intrigued to observe what they called an “inadvertent experiment” on a global scale. To what extent, they asked, would the Earth system respond to the steepest slowdown in human activity since World War II?
Environmental advocates put the question more succinctly: How much would it help to save the planet?
Almost one year on from the first reported COVID-19 case, the short answer is: not enough.
Illustration: Mountain People
Experts have said that the pandemic might have made some environmental problems worse, although there is still a narrow window of opportunity for something good to come from something bad if governments use their economic stimulus packages to promote a green recovery.
During spring in the northern hemisphere, when restrictions were at their strictest, the human footprint softened to a level not seen in decades.
Flights fell by 50 percent, while road traffic in the UK declined more than 70 percent. Industrial emissions in China, the world’s biggest source of carbon, were down about 18 percent between early February and mid-March — a cut of 250 million tonnes. Vehicle use in the US declined by 40 percent.
Humankind’s touch on the Earth was so light that seismologists could detect lower vibrations from “cultural noise.”
The respite was too short to reverse decades of destruction, but it did provide a glimpse of what the world might feel like without fossil fuels and with more space for nature. Wildlife did not have time to reclaim lost territory, but it had scope for exploration.
Alongside apocalyptic images of deserted roads, the Internet briefly buzzed with heartwarming clips of sheep in a deserted playground in Wales, coyotes on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, wild boar snuffling through the streets of Barcelona, Spain, and deer grazing not far from the White House. Wildflowers flourished on roadsides as verges were cut less frequently.
In the global south, the picture was more mixed. Rhino poaching declined in Tanzania due to the disruption of supply chains and restrictions on cross-border movements, but bushmeat hunting, illegal firewood collection and incursions into protected areas increased in India, Nepal and Kenya, because local communities lost tourist income and sought other ways to care for their families.
In Brazil, traditional guardians of the Amazon have been weakened. The Xavante and Yanomami communities have been strongly affected by the disease, and the lockdown has kept forest rangers at home.
Land grabbers, fire starters and illegal miners were busier than ever. Deforestation in Brazil hit a 12-year high.
There were health gains, although probably not enough to offset the losses. Providing a little relief from rising COVID-19 death tolls were projections in Europe of at least 11,000 fewer fatalities from air pollution.
Breathing cleaner air also meant 6,000 fewer children developing asthma, 1,900 avoiding emergency room visits and 600 fewer being born preterm.
In the UK, 2 million people with respiratory conditions experienced reduced symptoms.
The change was visible from space, where satellite picked up reductions of smog belts over Wuhan, China, and Turin, Italy. Residents in many cities could also see the difference.
In Kathmandu, Nepal, residents were astonished to make out Mount Everest for the first time in decades. In Manila, the Sierra Madre became visible again.
However, the gains were short-lived. Once lockdowns eased, traffic surged back and so did air pollution. In a survey of 49 British towns and cities, 80 percent had contamination levels that were the same or worse than before the pandemic.
Elsewhere, sightings of distant mountain peaks and wild animals are fading memories.
The story is equally disheartening when it comes to global carbon emissions, which fell steeply, but not for long enough to dent climate fears. Months of empty roads and skies, and sluggish economic activity reduced global greenhouse gas discharges by an estimated 7 percent, the sharpest annual fall ever recorded.
That is a savings of 1.5 to 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide pollution, but it merely slowed the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere, leaving the world on course for more than 3.2°C of warming by the end of this century.
In its annual Emissions Gap Report, the UN Environment Programme said the effects of lockdowns were “negligible,” equivalent to just a 0.01°C difference by 2030.
On a more optimistic note, the report said that ambitious green recovery spending could put the world back on track for the Paris agreement target of less than 2°C of warming, but there is so far scant sign of that.
Although China, the EU, the UK, Japan and South Korea have all announced carbon-neutral targets by the middle of the century, no nation is doing enough to achieve such goals.
Most stimulus spending is going to fossil-fuel industries that are making the climate worse, rather than to renewables that could make it better.
These twisted priorities have raised concerns that the lockdowns might end up like the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which led to a brief fall in emissions followed by a surge back to record highs.
“Based on how little of the roughly US$15 trillion in stimulus spending has gone to green energy and clean tech, I think COVID-19 will delay the transition to a carbon-free future,” Global Carbon Project chairman Rob Jackson said.
In China, emissions are back to 2019 levels, while other governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to delay climate action in the aviation sector, Jackson added.
US President Donald Trump has gone further in his demonstration of crisis capitalism by rolling back a raft of environmental protections and ramping up support for fossil fuels.
The situation is not entirely bleak. This exceptional year has strengthened the economic argument for renewable energy, which has proved a robust, cheap alternative during lockdowns.
Analysts predicted that last year would confirm the terminal decline of coal, the dirtiest of fuels, and also heighten doubts about investments in oil.
By comparison, wind and solar power are stable and clean.
“The virus has highlighted the health damage of oil-based transportation through air pollution. We caught a glimpse of a future with cleaner air in our cities without fossil fuel pollution from vehicles,” Jackson said.
Whether this is a blip or a turning point depends on action at the national and international levels. Because national governments are reluctant to change direction alone, global cooperation is essential.
However, COVID-19 has hampered cooperation, too. World leaders were supposed to meet in Glasgow, Scotland, last month for a UN Climate Summit designed to ramp up ambition, but that physical meeting had to be postponed until this year.
The virtual gathering that the UK hosts organized instead barely maintained the momentum. Very few of the participating nations came forward with concrete steps.
It was a similar story with international biodiversity talks that were supposed to have taken place in Kunming, China. They have been pushed back until May at the earliest and recalcitrant nations such as Brazil have been accused of impeding progress by throwing up questions about online processes.
As with the climate, it would not be accurate to say that last year was a lost year in international decisionmaking, but schedules have definitely been set back even as world leaders are saying that time is running out.
The necessity for action was driven home by another year of horrifying climate news: Last year saw record smoke plumes from bushfires in Australia; a freakishly protracted heatwave in Siberia; the most tropical storms ever registered in the Atlantic; devastating blazes in Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands; the highest flood levels recorded in east Africa; unusually devastating cyclones and typhoons in India, Indonesia and the Philippines; the hottest summer in the northern hemisphere in history; and temperature records in the Antarctic and the Arctic, where winter ice formation was delayed for longer than in any season in the satellite era.
January and November registered all-time heat records, while last year as a whole is certain to ensure that the past seven years are the hottest since measurements began.
The interconnectedness of the world’s multiple crises is also increasingly apparent.
Epidemiologists and conservationists have said that more outbreaks of coronavirus-like diseases are likely as a result of deforestation, global heating and humankind’s treatment of nature.
“The emergence of the pandemic was not an accident, as there have been repeated warnings for years that we are exerting too much pressure on the natural world by our destructive practices. Habitat loss, intensive agriculture and the over-exploitation of wildlife are key drivers of the emergence of novel infectious diseases like COVID-19,” WWF media manager Carole Mitchell said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres went further.
In an impassioned state of the planet address last month, he said that making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century.
“Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal,” he said. “Nature always strikes back — and it is already doing so with growing force and fury.”
Work on a truce is to have a better chance of getting under way this year, with a new vaccine, a new president in the White House, a newfound respect for science and a new awareness of how rapidly change can come.
It remains to be seen whether that leads to a transformative improvement of the Earth system or a resumption of tinkering around the edges.
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