Covid-19 sparks optimism of a low-carbon future


It’s time to step back and look at our Earth from a different perspective. Photo by Pikrepo

Residents look up to the sky at night, and a cloud of smog is all they see. No river of stars, no bright full moon, nothing but the pollution suffocating the galaxy beyond it.

This was the sad reality for the world’s most polluted capitals until a global pandemic was declared, and emissions began to drop.

As COVID-19 forces millions of people to stay inside their homes, environmentalists and climate change professionals are becoming optimistic on the unintentional positive change the virus could bring to the ever-suffering global environment. But how long will this effect last?

As the pandemic progresses, the demand for oil, gas and air travel, as well as decreased driving and coal mining, has become greatly reduced. Though this lack of demand poses as a negative effect for the global economy, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have never seen better days.

Global Carbon Project’s spokesman Peraphan Jittrapiro is one of many professionals who say the change is not permanent. “This reduction could be short lived if there is a lack of structural change in our society,” Mr Jittrapiro said in an email. “The current decrease of CO2 is not due to any climate policy or decoupling between economic growth and GHG emission, but mostly due to the slowing down in production, consumption, and transportation.”

Though professionals say that the pandemic is merely a temporary fix to the pending climate crisis, pollution and emissions have reportedly already dropped across the globe. China alone saw a drop in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 25 per cent during the country’s coronavirus peak. According to an article on, emissions in China have remained below normal more than two months after the country entered a total lockdown.

Professor of Geology and member of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) Patrick Nunn said six months prior to the virus hitting the globe, major governments were “largely contemptuous” to the ideas of sustainability with their aim being focused on squeezing whatever materials and monetary gains they could from the environment. “I would hope that this has been a wake-up call,” Professor Nunn said.

Across the globe residents in Punjab, one of India’s pollution hotspots, have been able to see the Himalayas 200km away, which is a 30-year first. NASA’s Earth Observatory also recorded the lowest aerosol levels in 20 years as the country keeps its 1.4 billion population on lockdown.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) ambient (outdoor) air pollution fact sheet states that keeping the particulate matter 2.5 below 20mg/m3 is considered the safe limit for air quality, but during the years before COVID-19 India recorded levels five times higher than the global safe limit. So, the country’s current environmental situation seems like something that could only be considered a once in a lifetime occurrence had the virus not have happened.

Academic journal EarthArXiv reported up to 90% of urban residents experience air pollution that well and truly exceeds WHO safety guidelines, with more than four million annual premature deaths being the result of excessively poor air quality.

CICERO Research director Glen Peters discusses the potential change in CO2 emissions as a result of COVID-19

Since social distancing was implemented across the world, other major cities are also showing signs of a decrease in levels of pollution. Not only that, but according to the Global Carbon Project’s (GCP) Centre for Global Environment Research, CO2 emissions could fall up to 5 per cent in 2020, a number that has not been seen since World War II.

This is where the question broadens. Can the positive change be maintained once the pandemic is over? Environmental professionals believe that the economic downturn could cause all sorts of damage to the future of climate change, but software developer and philanthropist Bill Gates remains positive that the pandemic will be a cause for change in the way government and policy makers form climate-based decisions.

“Science is on our side,” Mr Gates said when he spoke to Ted Connects’ Chris Anderson. “I’m still very much an optimist. Whether its climate change, countries working together, the amount of innovation and the way we can connect up and work together … I’m super positive about that.”

Although his optimism points towards a positive change for the climate crisis that has long been unfolding around the world, Gates is well aware of the aversion of the world’s political attention at the current time. As COVID-19 embraces the globe, the conversation of climate change has reduced, but have leaders forgotten about the detrimental climate effect that is looming over our world?

“It’s interesting how much of this distraction will delay the urgent innovation agenda that exists over in climate,” Mr Gates said. “For the last few months that’s now shifted and until we get out of this crisis COVID will dominate and though some of the climate stuff will still go on, it won’t get that same focus.”

According to an article written by BloombergNEF, the percentage of emissions could bounce back to its original rate once the COVID-19 pandemic ceases as a result of a depressed economy. In May 2019, the Mauna Loa Observatory recorded the CO2 emissions rate at 414.7 parts per million, which is the highest level recorded in human history.

However, there is hope circulating that society can create everlasting strategies and structural changes for the future of the globe if government bodies review their policies once the coronavirus eases. In a 2019 report by the World Meteorological Organisation, which includes studies undertaken by the IPCC, it said that countries needed to cut global CO2 emissions around 45 per cent below 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by approximately 2050 to avoid a major climate crisis.

Before COVID-19 disrupted the lives of millions, many sceptics argued with activists on the implications of climate change and whether scientific information could be trusted. According to a survey published by the Pew Research Centre in 2019, countries around the world show that a median of 68 per cent of people believe that climate change poses a major threat, a time when the climate conversation was beginning to saturate the media.

Pew Research Centre’s Climate Change Opinion Survey

“I’ll be very interested to see if in six months’ time whether that’s similar [support for climate] or whether in fact there are a lot more people who realise that COVID-19 was a symptom, if you like, of a fragile planet,” Professor Nunn said. “And that climate change is a much bigger symptom of a much longer-term fragility that we really need to address now before it causes major problems.”

As an example of detrimental environmental implications, the South Korea government has come under fire from activists and environmental watchdogs after an $AU1.26 trillion bailout for a major builder of coal and nuclear plant equipment was announced as part of the country’s stimulus package aimed to help struggling businesses. The bailout was implemented to elevate the industry of its struggling revenue as a result of the virus.

Activists and environmental watchdogs from other countries argue that the rescue package goes against the country’s existing climate and public health commitments in a letter submitted on April 8, with a statement reporting that the company in question was already struggling financially before the virus was declared a pandemic. This is just one of many climate-based issues that could continue to arise during the pandemic.

Now more than ever countries are collectively experiencing a low carbon world, which a year before now was something that could only be achieved within a 12-year timeframe. A 1.5 degree drop across the globe was desperately needed to keep civilization and the world ecosystems safe, a target that was formed as part of the Paris Climate Agreement.

In the area of climate, hopes are high that ways to reduce emissions will be produced and formed as a result of the coronavirus’ impact on the environment. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released an Economic Response Plan during the pandemic that provides $C750 million to create an Emissions Reduction Fund which implements efforts to reduce emissions in the country’s oil and gas sector, with the main focus being on a reduction of methane. In a post-virus environment, implementing more strategies and policies can help reduce mass global pollution.

Main photo by Pikrepo