Coronavirus is curbing carbon emissions

COVID-19 is slowing economies and emissions, and experts say greener criteria could help avert future outbreaks.

Coronavirus climate change
Demand for air travel, oil and electricity are declining as the coronavirus spreads, curtailing greenhouse gas emissions [File: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]

With the rapid spread of the coronavirus beyond China, the president of the United States is hoping that spring temperatures will halt the contagion in its tracks the same way that common cold strains abate by summer.

“You know, in theory when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away, that’s true,” US President Donald Trump said last month.

The mercury is once again rising faster, with January 2020 posting the highest temperatures on record for the first month of the year.

But health experts are loath to assume that the number of new cases will fall as the northern hemisphere emerges from a mild winter.

“No one knows for sure what warmer temperatures will mean for COVID-19 because it is a novel virus, but WHO [World Health Organization] has said that there is no evidence currently that we should expect this outbreak to subside with warming temperatures,” Thomas Bollyky, director of the global health programme at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera.

While global warming may not make the coronavirus go away, the outbreak is temporarily curbing carbon emissions. And financial experts say new sustainability criteria for assessing investment risks could help governments and the private sector initiate measures that could avoid future outbreaks.  

‘Falls in economic activity’

More than 4,000 people have died of COVID-19, with 113 confirmed cases across 109 countries and territories, according to WHO. 

Regardless of how climate change might impact the dissemination of the coronavirus droplets, the disease is temporarily reducing carbon emissions in China and elsewhere as many factories remain shuttered and fuel consumption goes down.

“The most immediate impact of coronavirus is falls in economic activity, which will reduce greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions,” Faith Ward, chief responsible investment officer at Brunel Pension Partnership, told Al Jazeera.

And as the spread of COVID-19 slows in China, some experts have called attention to major environmental improvements around Wuhan, the city where the outbreak began.

“There do seem to be good data supporting the conclusion that emissions of GHGs and conventional air pollutants have gone down in China,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

He told Al Jazeera that the airline industry is the best current example of such a decline in emissions.

During a three-week span in China, daily flights went down from over 15,000 to barely 2,000, according to tracking firm Flightradar24.

With Italy and other nations likely to copy aspects of China’s lockdown model, demand for air travel, oil and electricity could keep declining.

Automobile use, manufacturing and industrial production have clearly dipped, causing fewer emissions. Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant that is released when fossil fuels are burned, have decreased some 40 percent in China – according to Washington Post analysis of data from the Sentinel-5P satellite.

But if history is any guide, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions may not last. The 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak, oil shocks of the 1970s, and the 2008 financial crisis caused ephemeral drops in polluting activities – before the economy fell back into high-emissions mode.  

Highlighting critical safety issues

Some business sustainability experts believe that as the public and private sectors become more cognizant of environmental, social and governance (ESG) risks, this prism could provide a framework for more effectively meeting the challenges of climate change and viral epidemics.

“Both coronavirus and climate change reinforce the need for investors to manage ESG issues or face rapidly escalating and global financial risks,” said Maria Lettini, executive director of the FAIRR Initiative, a collaborative investor network that represents $20 trillion in assets under management.

“Mainstream investors such as BlackRock are now taking climate risk seriously and urging companies to do the same through processes like scenario analysis and setting science-based targets,” she told Al Jazeera.

FAIRR – which raises awareness about sustainable food investment – is particularly focused on how the coronavirus itself is believed to have emerged from a live-animal market in Wuhan.

“We need urgent engagement on diseases originating in animals destined for the food system, whether it’s coronavirus, African swine fever, or avian flu, or the many other animal pandemics in recent years,” Lettini added.

She said coronavirus highlights “critical safety issues” and raised “a serious red flag”.

With the next United Nations climate conference in Glasgow eight months away, it is too soon to tell whether governments will be still be too consumed by the fight against coronavirus to make meaningful progress in the battle to stem global heating.

But with quarantines and lockdowns set to multiply exponentially, the connection between human and ecological well-being is becoming ever clearer.

“Regulation may need to evolve to better safeguard public health and environmental outcomes,” said Lettini.

Source: Al Jazeera