2020 is likely to be remembered as the year when the Coronavirus pandemic brought Australia, together with most of the world, to a halt. Covid-19 has impacted the global population as well as our surrounding environment like no other virus in our lifetime.
Without intention to belittle the devastating impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on millions of people, opinions have been raised that this is perhaps the break that mother nature needed to slow down global warming. There are statistics that indicate the various lockdowns across the world have positively impacted the environment. But will they be short lived? Will we go straight back to our pre-coronavirus lives as soon as we can, or are there at least some positive lasting effects from the world’s lockdown?
Right now, we have significantly fewer planes in the sky, fewer cars on the roads, and many polluting factories have been temporarily shut down. According to the International Energy Agency, global electricity demand is currently down 20%, and overall, the world will be using 6% less energy this year. This is roughly the equivalent of shutting down India for a year!
We are living through the biggest carbon crash ever recorded. Even WW2, the Global Financial Crisis, and Great Depression did not have such a large impact on CO2 emissions as Covid-19 has. China, recognised as one of the world’s biggest polluters, has alone seen its emissions drop by a quarter.
The GFC caused a 450-million-ton fall in global CO2 emissions. WW2 saw a drop of nearly double that. But they are both dwarfed by the impact of Covid-19. Based on various data points, carbonbrief.org believe that the pandemic could cause a 2,000 million ton emission drop in 2020.
Is this a much-needed change in direction to alleviate the rise of global warming, or just a temporary pause in trajectory?
Air travel disrupted like never before
Flying has never been as popular as it has been in the last decade. So, the sudden halt to flights is a new experience for us all. Parked up planes at airports, mostly empty seats on the flights that are still operational, and vastly emptier skies is a new norm for most countries around the world.
In Europe, the number of flights is down around 90%, and less than half the number of planes are taking off in the US compared to last year. Australia has effectively cut itself off from the rest of the world with only emergency repatriation flights and freight currently operating internationally. Globally, the demand for jet fuel is down 65% year-on-year to April.
Surprisingly for non-experts, this huge reduction in air travel has not the effect on CO2 reduction that one might think. According to the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research , air travel accounts for just 3% of total annual CO2 emissions. So, while relative reductions in land transportation are much lower than in air travel, the reductions are much bigger in absolute terms.
Empty roads ‘driving’ down emissions
Cars are a major source of greenhouse gases in Australian cities. According to the Climate Council, at 17%, transport is Australia's third largest source of total greenhouse gas emissions.
Globally, average road transport activity has fallen to 50% of 2019 levels. Major cities such as Berlin, London, Milan, New York, Paris, and Shanghai have experienced less than a quarter of their traffic congestion in April 2020 vs the same time in 2019.
But what will happen when the various lockdowns are lifted? Will we get back behind the wheel in our droves? Some analysts believe that we were already driving a little less even before the coronavirus pandemic hit. If you look at new car purchases, it is increasingly accepted that we saw peak conventional car demand back in 2017. The increase in popularity of electric vehicles, car share schemes, and viable public transportation are more cause to celebrate an ongoing positive shift.
In addition, we may see a potential reduction in peak commuting traffic as white-collar workers have begun working from home at a scale never experienced before.
The ‘working from home’ phenomenon - or will it simply be known as ‘working’ from now on?
Working from home was generally a luxury for the relatively affluent before coronavirus - not anymore. A Gartner HR survey reveals 88 per cent of organisations have encouraged or required employees to work from home due to coronavirus.
Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, only around 7% of workers had the option to regularly work from home. This is likely to have increased further as many companies accelerate digitisation of their companies - think traditional bricks and mortar stores being forced to pivot and sell online, adapting to the decrease, and in many cases total disappearance, of footfall.
As lockdown restrictions are eased, many organisations and their employees are now facing decisions on where they can get the most effective output from. Increased adoption of technology, such as video conferencing and cloud solutions mean that being physically present in an office environment is less important now for many functions than it may have been prior to the coronavirus crisis. Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, has confirmed that he will allow his employees to work from home forever if that’s what they want.
Office workers are not the only ones who have had their lives flipped upside down though. Unfortunately, many workers, who do not have the option to work from home, especially in the hospitality sector, have been affected by mass layoffs. The conflict between the health of the population, and the health of the economy has been highly debated across the globe.
One area that has benefited though is the air that we breathe.
Our air quality has vastly improved
Readings from the European Space Agency are showing that levels of nitrogen dioxide in Asia and Europe are significantly lower than in the same period last year.
Nitrogen dioxide is produced from car engines, power plants and other industrial processes and is thought to exacerbate respiratory illnesses. With reduced car travel and closed factories, we are now breathing cleaner air.
According to Nasa, nitrogen dioxide levels across China have been 10-30% lower than normal. They have also reported big reductions in South Korea, Italy, and the UK.
The irony of this is that billions of people have been unable to enjoy the cleaner air due to lockdown conditions.
Emissions might be down, but plastic waste is up
One environmental area that coronavirus has not managed to bring to a skidding halt is our use of plastic. The Covid-19 crisis has spurred a rapid expansion in the production of desperately needed personal protective equipment, which contains large amounts of plastic. While this use case is of course extremely important and saving multiple lives, it is adding to an already accelerated production of plastic.
Global plastic production has quadrupled over the last four decades with a stark warning that if that this trend continues, then plastic will make up 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. By comparison, land, air, and sea transportation combined currently accounts for 15% of emissions.
Despite the well publicised removal of single use plastic bags from major supermarkets in Australia, the coronavirus pandemic is potentially aiding their comeback at smaller retailers. With grocery stores being one of the few places still open during lockdowns, disposable plastic bags are returning in numbers as some people fear that reusable bags could spread the disease. There is no evidence of reusable bags spreading coronavirus, but some people are being cautious.
One of the most serious repercussions of increasing plastic product consumption is that every year, 8 million metric tons of plastics enter our oceans. This is in addition to the estimated 150 million metric tons that already circulate our marine environments.
Just a short-term benefit for the environment
Mother nature may be currently enjoying a little bit of respite, but the impact coronavirus has had on world economies & unemployment figures mean that governments are increasingly pushing to get life and business back to normal. It looks like the environment’s breather may be short lived, and any benefit over the last 2 months is unlikely to alleviate global warming in the long-term.
The World Meteorological Organisation expect overall carbon emissions to fall by 5% this year but reviewing previous global events, they expect little long-term impact on climate change. The carbon emissions drop that followed the recession in 2009 was followed by a sharp rise of almost 6% the following year. It is believed that, while in the short-term emissions will go down as cars stay put and aircraft remain on the ground, the impact will be fairly short-lived.
We are likely to go back to our old ways. Human nature is generally self-preserving, motivated by safety, comfort, convenience, and in some cases profit and indulgence. Many polluting companies are still the only way millions can earn a wage and provide for their families, cars are still the most convenient way to get from A to B, and for an increasingly globalised society, air travel will continue to knit inter-reliant economies together.
Technology, infrastructure, and education are the most likely passports towards positive action on climate change. Only viable alternatives to driving yourself, such as expanded access to reliable, affordable, and comfortable public transport will give pause to consider leaving the car at home. And with an understanding of the damage oil production does to the environment, or at least an understanding that it will one day run out, the development of cars, buses, trains, and trams with renewable energy may become more commonplace. What we need to understand is that change often requires a catalyst. We didn’t just collectively decide to stop using plastic bags at Coles and Woolworths one day. That behaviour change was because of a catalyst; an agreement between the government and the retailers. Whether the coronavirus pandemic is a catalyst of change for further environmental benefit, and a slowdown in global warming, remains to be seen.