The response to the spread of COVID-19 has made strides towards reducing global climate emissions, or so it would seem. Carbon dioxide emissions from China declined by 25% in February compared to a similar time last year, due to the drastic reduction in industrial processing and output (1). Vast improvements in air quality have also been measured in Hubei province (2). This trend can also be seen in the Italy’s industrial north and in other polluted cities, where both traffic and industrial activity is temporarily halted (2,3). Even in countries not (yet) in lock-down, offices have closed and home working is being encouraged or enforced, to reduce unnecessary social contact.
Currently, transport accounts for 33% of the UK’s carbon emissions (4), 37% of which is work-related travel (5). Even if only half of the workforce started working from home (obviously not a possibility for those working in manufacturing, manual labour, hospitality, retail, and key workers for instance), this could reduce carbon emissions in the UK by more than 6%. Similar trends are also being seen across the world (6).
Air travel has also been discouraged globally, leading to companies such as Air France and British Airways owner IAG reducing their capacity (in seat-kilometers) by at least 75%, while KLM plans to ground their entire Boeing 747 fleet (7,8). As of 16th March, flights out of Heathrow to Zurich, Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, Warsaw, Stockholm, Munich, Aberdeen and Paris were cancelled. Flights worldwide produce around 915 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2 per year, or 76.25 Mt each month (9). A 75% reduction in flights could save up to 57.2 Mt each month during this crisis, greater than the total yearly emissions of Finland each month (10).
Car sales have also been significantly affected by the pandemic; BMW, Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Vauxhall are closing UK factories due to both a drop in sales and difficulty accessing necessary parts (11). In China, car sales were down by 96% in early February, although elsewhere the decline is much less dramatic (12).
Some behaviour change has also been seen by the fashion industry, which has experienced significant declines in both in-store and online sales. Fashion retailer Next has seen a 30% drop in sales since the start of the year, while Burberry have seen a 40-50% decline in in-store sales since last month (13). In the UK, we currently send 10,000 items of clothing to landfill every five minutes (14). Could the decline in interest in fast-fashion extend beyond this initial upset, and begin to change our materialistic desire for new outfits, and improve our habits with regard to clothing waste?
The other side of the coin However, environmentalists should not order the (biodegradable) party balloons just yet. The response to coronavirus has led to a dramatic increase in the sale and use of single-use masks, gloves, wipes, plastic bags, and bottled water (15). Coffee shops are no-longer accepting re-usable coffee cups to try to prevent the spread of the virus (16). The long-term impact of these necessary measures on plastic pollution is undoubtedly significant. Other industries have also seen an increase in consumption: to complement the rapid bulk-buying and stockpiling of food, freezer sales have increased by 300% compared to this time last year (17). In addition to the resources used to meet this demand, the extra appliances will increase electricity use across the country.
With regards to the impressive carbon emission reductions, these are a result of a great threat to the health and wellbeing of potentially millions of people, and the death of many thousands of people already (18). Factories and other workplaces are closing, events are being cancelled, and some companies are permanently laying off staff to cut costs (19). This is leaving many people out of work, and many more with precarious or zero-hours contracts with great uncertainty over their income.
This is not the way that climate change can, or should, be prevented. For change to be lasting and successful, it must be sustainable. The focus on carbon as a single metric for addressing the climate crisis oversimplifies both the issue and the potential solutions. We can see here that extremely rapid carbon reduction has come at the price of huge human suffering, much of which has yet to be felt. At Change Agents, we believe that a broader perspective, using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework, may be a more appropriate way to create a secure and resilient future for all, as well as addressing climate change. The 17 SDGs were developed by the UN as an urgent call to action by all countries as a global partnership (20). They recognise that, in order to be effective and equitable, tackling climate change must go hand-in-hand with ending poverty and inequality, improving healthcare and education, developing sustainable energy, transport, manufacturing and consumption practices, and preserving our terrestrial and marine biosphere.
Sustainability encompasses not only environmental and ecological concerns, but also economic and social factors. Any change in emissions caused by a significant financial downturn will not be maintained when the markets rebound. The global financial crisis in 2008 caused a 1.4% decrease in global emissions, followed by a subsequent 5.9% increase in emissions (2). It may be the case that post-corona production and emissions surge to make up for lost time and loss of profits (2).
The International Energy Agency (IEA) have also warned that the economic downturn and falling oil prices may disincentivise investment in clean energy, which could slow the world’s clean energy transition (21).
All of this indicates that the corona-induced reduction in emissions may not be the boon to the climate change movement that it initially seems. But is there anything that we can take from this?
Moving forward from Corona
Office closures and encouraged or enforced home working have been implemented as a temporary measure, but this new change in working practices may act as a real-life experiment for changing working practices. Many companies may find that their productivity does not suffer despite the remote working. Software such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Slack allow workers to stay connected through video conferencing, group chats and shared calendars. As life returns to normality, many companies may continue to allow, or even encourage, many workers to continue to work remotely (22). This may see emissions from commuter traffic decline more permanently. It also allows much greater flexibility for employees, who are able to work the hours that suit them and save time on commuting. It also gives employees the ability to better manage their work/life balance, and fulfil other commitments such as emergency childcare or domestic duties.
There is also the issue of ‘crisis fatigue’ – as we emerge from the measures imposed during this pandemic, what will the appetite be for a renewed conversation about the climate emergency and the radical global efforts that still need to be made? Even the most well-intentioned of us may feel the need for a ‘break’ from apocalyptic messages and drastic calls to action. A key focus of the environmental/climate action movement must be the way that we can maintain the climate crisis message in the public eye, while avoiding any insensitivity to the difficulty that this humanitarian crisis will bring to millions.
Conclusions The long-term social, economic and environmental impacts of COVID-19 are as-yet uncertain. After any major disaster or upset, the global economy (and associated carbon emissions) often return to business-as-usual. Will our insatiable appetite for international holidays, fast-fashion, and new vehicles be permanently reduced? Or will we want to make up for lost time?
With foresight, the societal changes imposed during the coronavirus crisis could lead to more, longer-term behavioural change in the direction of sustainability, to the benefit of the climate movement. In the short-term, our efforts must be focussed on preventing the spread of this disease, particularly to the most vulnerable in society. In the long-term, we may find that changing working practices facilitate the adoption of further sustainable behaviour change.