2020: The world paused and the environment benefited
Updated: Apr 19
The coronavirus pandemic raises so many issues for the global community. There will be considerable and ongoing discussion about what can be learned from this emergency and how such lessons might be used to tackle other global emergencies such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, and species extinction.
History suggests that such pandemics occur more frequently than we think, perhaps once in a generation and some are more deadly to humans than others. What is different about COVID-19 is that it is not only highly contagious, but it has emerged at a time in which physical connectivity and individual mobility is the highest it has ever been, leading to rapid dispersal of the virus around the world.
What is also different is that the global response has been more rapid. Each nation has taken a slightly different approach, but there is much that is common with the UN World Health Organisation, an influential voice. The global scientific and technical community have worked together to meet the many emerging challenges, from treatments and equipment for those affected by the virus, to the provision of digital and communications technology to allow people to continue working from home where possible.
Economic activity has been reduced considerably and with it the consumption of energy in nearly all sectors, the exception being the domestic area. The economies of the more energy intensive countries such as China, the USA, and those in Europe, have been heavily impacted. And from an environmental perspective, the draconian measures taken to dampen the spread of the virus have led to local air pollution falling dramatically and carbon dioxide emissions around the world will be much lower this year.
Evidence from the past shows that such shocks to the energy system provide only a temporary relief to the environment; the last major economic shock in 2008, and its aftermath barely registered on the rate of increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as shown in the figure. This was partly because the financial crisis led to a downturn in the western developed countries but had much less impact on the fast-growing economies of Asia.
However, this economic shock is different; it is global not regional in scope and the virus has disrupted all forms of energy use, particularly in the transport, industry and the commercial sectors. A vaccine for the virus will take time to develop and to implement and the economic recovery will be slow and hesitant in the coming years.
So, what are the lessons learned from this pandemic and armed with these, could global leaders and other decision-makers be encouraged to be more progressive when addressing other global issues such as climate change? There are many promising avenues to explore, from the role of our international institutions to the individual at work and play.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has done a good job in highlighting the risks associated with COVID-19 and providing the expert advice needed to address the pandemic. Despite some recent criticism from the USA, the respect afforded this organisation and the many scientists working on the issue around the world is both merited and welcomed.
Another United Nations initiative, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), provides a similar function for addressing the risks associated with climate change, something it has highlighted consistently for the last three decades. Unfortunately, countries have been less forthcoming when listening to the UNFCC's expert advice. The actions taken thus far do not reflect the potential severity of the problem, despite evidence that some predicted climate change impacts are already upon us. It is time the UNFCC's efforts on climate change are afforded the same respect as the WHO today; countries need to meet their greenhouse gas reduction targets under the Paris Agreement this decade and to go further where possible. And these efforts, and much more, will be needed in the decades to the middle of the century to meet the ambition of limiting global average temperatures to less than 2°C.
History suggests that dramatic shocks to the global system in the past have facilitated the onset of new products and practices. What can we expect following the current crisis? At the organisation and individual level, a remarkable outcome is the enforced, rapid growth of remote working. This is not a new phenomenon but has not been tried out on such a massive scale before. The deployment and 'stress-testing' of computer technology and its software, communication systems, and different ways of engaging with colleagues has been essential, and this will likely lead to a different model for many workers in the future; it has also facilitated and encouraged more interaction between friends and families who have had to forego leisure activities together.
A shift in work and travel patterns would have some major implications for energy consumption. Buildings and transport before COVID-19 accounted for about 30% and 20% of global energy consumed respectively. Organisations will rightly explore the lessons learned during this period and consider how they might be more flexible in the way they conduct their business going forward. The energy demand profile will change, and this will have significant implications for energy markets.
The pandemic has changed the world and there is a realisation that the human condition and the natural environment are fragile, requiring care and attention. There will be a discontinuity in the long-run trend of energy use and result in a fall in carbon dioxide emissions. 2020 will be seen as a significant milestone, a year the world paused and the environment benefited.
Chris Anastasi - April 2020