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Temporarily Clear Skies

The Climate Crisis in the Wake of COVID-19


In the months since the COVID-19 outbreak began there has been one definitive positive: the planet has had a chance to heal itself. Comparative images of China’s major cities seen from space, and taken by NASA and the European Space Agency from January-February 2019 and January-February 2020, showed an unprecedented drop in pollution levels. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) recorded that carbon dioxide emissions alone fell 25 per cent, a total of 200 million tonnes in the four weeks leading up to March 2020.

Globally, images flooded the media of deserted streets with bright, clear skies. Abandoned venetian canals, the Himalayas seen from Pathankot, and the hazy brown smog disappearing from cosmopolitan cities across the world; New Delhi, Los Angeles, and Jakarta. Among the nations which were hit the earliest and hardest by the virus, China, Italy and the United Kingdom showed significant reductions in air pollutants in the months which followed.

The fact that it takes immense economic turmoil, record-breaking job losses, and a devastating death toll, to force humanity to face our other global crisis, climate change, is troubling. Chair of the Global Carbon Project, Rob Jackson, warns that this kind of drop can only be temporary: “Air pollution has plunged in most areas. The virus provides a glimpse of just how quickly we could clean our air with renewables… I refuse to celebrate a drop in emissions driven by tens of millions of people losing their jobs. We need systemic change in our energy infrastructure, or emissions will roar back later.”

However, the kind of systemic change necessary, particularly in countries like the United States, is anything but forthcoming. In fact, the economic disaster created by the virus has paved the way for the opposite approach. Guardian writer Jonothan Watts, highlights this political backlash: “Oil company executives have lobbied Donald Trump for a bailout. Under the cover of the crisis, the White House has rolled back fuel-economy standards for the car industry, the Environmental Protection Agency has stopped enforcing environmental laws, three states have criminalised fossil fuel protesters and construction has resumed on the KXL oil pipeline.”

Unfortunately, others have predicted a similar international response to what is currently happening in the United States. According to National Geographic, political scientist and environmental researcher François Gemenne predicts that: “When the pandemic finally abates, polluting industries may well seek to make up for lost time with even higher production… If the virus makes people fearful of public transportation, driving could increase also.”

As the place of the epicentre, we can look to China to see how a return to normal might appear. The current pollution levels have already overtaken pre-coronavirus levels. The CREA attributes this rebound to “industrial emissions” as “pollution levels tended to increase more in areas where coal-burning is a larger source of pollution.” The centre also noted “ozone levels are close to the record level of 2018” in China.

Given the delayed reaction to the warnings stated by the World Health Organization regarding COVID-19, it will be important to remember the dangers of prioritising political opinion over expert advice.


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