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The panic around the coronavirus is spreading and impacting more people across continents and touching more aspects of our lives, from travel restrictions to fluctuations in financial markets to delays and shortages in retail supplies. When we look at the bigger picture, what does this crisis mean in terms of climate and our environment? If the claims by the WHO and other scientists that climate change impacts infectious diseases are correct, can we reinforce our efforts to reduce emissions to combat global warming and prevent the threat of future viruses developing? Should we see the virus as an omen guiding us to make our lifestyles and economies more sustainable?
An article in Time magazine warns that the virus outbreak could derail the Paris Agreement efforts to combat global warming. On the most basic level, delays and cancellations of negotiations and conferences is interfering with countries carrying out their pledges to reduce emissions in accordance with climate scientists’ recommendations. And beyond the practical interruptions to climate diplomacy, the urgent political and economic crises caused by the virus are distracting leaders and preventing them from investing the attention and energy that is needed to advance climate policies.
Moreover, with the virus reducing economic growth, especially in China and neighboring countries where the world’s manufacturing takes place, the need to stabilize the economy may well spur increased fossil fuel combustion in an effort to accelerate growth and cause a serious setback in achieving emission reduction targets. While Europe signed the $1 trillion Green Deal to stimulate a package of both economic growth and decarbonization, it isn’t clear that all countries will follow suit.
On the other hand, the world’s reaction to the virus is encouraging for climate change: The rapid response to the virus demonstrates how world leaders can coordinate and cooperate during emergencies, following advice from health scientists to protect lives. Applying this same urgency to climate issues would raise the chances of success. The immediate impact of restricted travel and manufacturing has already caused a significant if temporary reduction in emissions that has notably improved air quality in China and other locations. This development supports climate action and could be leveraged to promote deeper, long-term positive eco-friendly social and behavioral modifications.
Coronavirus has forced us to reassess the need for international travel and come up with alternative ways for remote interaction. For example, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have announced that they will hold a virtual teleconference instead of their annual Washington conference. The economic and carbon savings could turn this one-time measure into a new, more sustainable practice.
According to one report in The Guardian it is too early to know if the impact of the coronavirus can lead to the longer-term reduction in emissions that scientists say is needed to keep global temperatures from exceeding 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. We cannot yet predict the full scope or impact of coronavirus on the economy. Crucial coordination on climate policy would likely be disrupted if the virus should cause the cancellation of the EU-China summit planned for September. But the fact that companies and organizations are successfully responding to the virus by leveraging technology to adapt work practices and maintain productivity is encouraging. Although attention has been diverted to this temporary epidemic, the fundamental challenges of climate change causing severe weather around the globe and its widespread consequences will not disappear. Hopefully we can leverage the lessons we are learning from this crisis to increase sustainability and improve long-term climate action, reduce emissions and accelerate the transition to widespread renewable energy sources – solar, wind and hydrogen fuel cells – for a cleaner, safer and healthier future.