No quick wins: The COVID-19 crisis and climate change

The measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a decline in CO2 emissions. But without structural changes in place, this will not benefit the climate in the long run.

The pandemic of COVID-19 has brought public life and entire economies in Asia to a halt and, with that, global greenhouse gas emissions have come down. China, for instance, witnessed a temporary drop of its energy consumption and emissions by 25 per cent. As the spread of the virus forced governments to impose drastic measures to contain the virus, we have seen pollution levels drop and air quality improve all over the world. For most people in the climate scene, however, it is clear that the coronavirus crisis is not quite the boon it might seem for the ongoing climate emergency.

First, it would be cynical to celebrate environmental gains at the cost of a global pandemic that is taking thousands of people’s lives and hits the most vulnerable groups of society and their livelihoods especially hard (see earlier <link corona-brief _blank>#FESAsiaCoronaBriefs on the Nepali tourism sector or the Bangladeshi garment industry).

Second, looking at the experience from the financial crisis in 2008, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions will probably not be long term but rather be cancelled out by rebound emissions. Although global emissions dropped during the financial crisis by around 2 per cent, they rose by 5 per cent after the crisis. “There is nothing to celebrate in a likely decline in emissions driven by economic crisis because, in the absence of the right policies and structural measures, this decline will not be sustainable,” says Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy AgencyAfter the financial crisis, the opportunity was missed to put the economy on a more sustainable, climate-friendly track. To avoid that mistake happening again, many researchers and climate activists have suggested how economic stimulus packages should be tied to the promotion of green growth and investment in low-carbon technologies.

In Malaysia, for example, Nithi Nesadurai, Regional Coordinator of the Climate Action Network Southeast Asia, reported that CSOs sent a letter to the Minister of Finance after the announcement of two economic stimulus packages by the government and in anticipation of a third one. In it, they demanded that the packages shift the economy towards a more efficient use of energy, sustainable consumption of natural resources, enhanced social and economic resilience against future shocks and equitable access to wealth and resources.

Third, a global recession could slow down a social-ecological transformation. Yes, a massive reduction of global emissions is needed if we are to avoid a 3- or 4-degree warming of the world, and the past few weeks have shown that such reductions are possible. But a decarbonized economy means decoupling wealth from emissions and not economic decline, where peoples’ very existence is threatened. For such transformations, healthy economies are needed. This also requires that governments, which have an active role in steering these transformation processes, make sure that this transition is just and that no one is left behind. A further deepening of the crisis could stall resilient infrastructure projects and the necessary investments for an energy transition.

The global supply chains for the hardware of renewable energy have also been affected. Whereas the factories in China, where 70 per cent of the global supply of solar panels is manufactured, are able to restart their production, it is now India that is under lockdown, causing likely delays in the delivery of wind turbines and solar PVs. With the uncertainty of how long this crisis will last, the completion of renewable energy projects not only in Asia but worldwide could be impacted.

And finally, this health crisis could be a setback for international climate diplomacy. This year, 2020, was supposed to mark the beginning of a decade of focus on the climate, in which countries would step up their ambitions and curb emissions in time to meet the goal of capping the global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees. With the recent announcement that the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference will be postponed, concerns are growing that the momentum will be lost and the crisis will be used as an excuse to delay climate action. As an example, the European car industry has already called on the European Union to delay its climate targets, and the Chinese government is reportedly thinking about postponing a new emissions-particle restriction for six months. It should not come as any surprise if those who were against ambitious climate action before this crisis now try to use it for their own interests.

With many things uncertain these days, what we know for sure is that the climate crisis will still be here after the pandemic ends. Therefore, we need to carefully consider these things as a whole and not play one essential crisis against another.


Claudia Ehing is the FES Project Director of the Climate and Energy Project in Asia, based in Hanoi.  

The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.

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