Has the COVID-19 pandemic helped us or hurt us in the fight against climate change?

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our daily lives in ways many of us could not even begin to imagine before 2020. There have been myriad effects of the coronavirus pandemic, both positive and negative, ranging from job losses to increased family time at home.

While the direct impacts of the pandemic on people are frequently discussed, many of us may not have considered its effect on the climate. This post examines how coronavirus has impacted climate change, and whether the pandemic has progressed or stalled our fight against global warming.

Reduced Emissions: Too Good to Be True?

One of the major arguments supporting the idea that the pandemic helped reduce climate change is that greenhouse gas emissions decreased when businesses and schools closed their doors and people stayed home. While COVID-19 lockdowns in some countries did reduce emissions, these reductions ultimately have had very little effect on slowing climate change.

In 2020, COVID-19 led to economic shutdowns in many countries around the world. As a result, carbon emissions tied to transportation of goods and people, industry and fossil fuel use as a whole were reduced. However, these reductions did little to reduce climate change.

First, these reductions were short lived. The same study found that although greenhouse gas emissions in China decreased by as much as 30 percent in February 2020 compared to 2019, these emission levels had rebounded to “normal” by April of the same year.

Second, while greenhouse gas emissions decreased, these reductions did not actually result in a decrease in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere according to the 2021 study.  

Grahic illustrating the COVID pandemic's impacts on climate change
Photo by Fateme Alaie via Unsplash

For example, carbon emissions fell by 5.4 percent in 2020, but atmospheric carbon dioxide continued to increase. Researchers attribute this to normal yearly variation and to the fact that the ocean absorbed less carbon dioxide as a result of the decreased pressure of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The study also revealed an interesting link between air pollution and climate. Even though emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas, dropped by as much as 10 percent because of the pandemic, atmospheric methane levels remained the same. This is because the pandemic also resulted in reduced pollution of nitrous oxide from cars, which plays an important role in breaking up methane in the atmosphere.

While emissions reductions from the pandemic are unlikely to make a big difference in slowing climate change, they do provide us with some hope. The intensity and rapidity of these reductions shows that we are capable of making these changes on a fairly short timescale. The 2021 study also highlights the impact that individuals’ actions, such as driving less, can have on reducing emissions, even if these are not enough to solve the issue on their own.

Climate change response has suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic
Graphic by 愚木混株 cdd20 via Unsplash

COVID-19 and Climate Change:
Compounding Challenges

In many ways, climate change and the pandemic are similar problems. Both create financial burdens, both disproportionately affect disadvantaged people and both require us to depend on somewhat uncertain predictions about the future. Partially because of these similarities, the pandemic has made it more difficult not only to address the impacts of climate change that are already occurring, but also to mitigate future consequences of climate change.

The years of the pandemic have also seen sharp increases in climate-driven extreme weather events

As the pandemic continues to add strain on medicine and public health systems as a whole, it has become more difficult for many countries to respond to climate disasters. With money going towards the pandemic, it is also more difficult to prepare for future climate disasters, because countries must focus on the most pressing issue: the coronavirus.

The pandemic has also cost us money that could have gone towards fighting climate change. The International Monetary Fund predicts that the pandemic will cost the global economy $12.5 trillion through 2024, while estimates of how much it would cost to stop climate change range from $300 billion to $50 trillion. While there is no guarantee that money spent on the pandemic would have gone towards fighting climate change, there is no doubt that the pandemic is redirecting global financial resources.

Conclusion: An Environmentalist Approach to Pandemic Recovery

While the pandemic has, in many ways, made it more difficult to slow climate change, it has taught us important lessons about how to respond to global challenges. We can learn from the pandemic in order to better cope with climate change.

Both the pandemic and climate change require us to increase our long-term resiliency and prepare ourselves for a wide variety of scenarios. As with the pandemic, our infrastructure, supply chains and health systems are and will be impacted by climate change, and we must take actions not only to mitigate climate change, but also to prepare ahead of time for its impacts.

Like the pandemic, climate change is an issue that will require global cooperation to address. Ideally, we will learn from our successes and mistakes in handling the pandemic on an international level in order to address climate change more efficiently, effectively and ethically as it continues to worsen.

Some countries are even using pandemic recovery plans to help prevent climate change. For example, the EU’s pandemic recovery plan has dedicated 25 percent of its $826 billion budget to climate-focused measures such as clean energy and low-carbon vehicles. 

As we continue to address and recover from the pandemic, we must keep the climate in mind.

© 2022 Lena Milton

Lena Milton is a freelance writer who covers sustainability, health and environmental science. She writes to help consumers understand the environmental and ethical challenges in everyday life so we can find viable solutions. She also is a Knight of the Climate Covenant. Read more of her writing here.

Image of freelance writer Lena Milton

Featured photo by Jelena Stanojkovic via Shutterstock

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5 Comments

  1. Interesting that emissions were quickly reduced showing we can adapt to radical change, even whilst under duress, but also that it doesn’t help the bigger picture and the complexities of climate change. This shows how important it is to research more and fit Governments to have the courage to dedicate money to finding alternatives before things deteriorate further.
    Our planet depends on it.

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