Is COVID-19 hurting the climate change cause?

Maddie Gordon | Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow



At first glance, COVID-19 has benefited the environment. In the first month of the pandemic, Chinese coal consumption fell by 36 per cent. Both NASA and the European Space Agency have observed decreased levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over capital cities and industrial centres in China and Europe. And the skies in Delhi, notorious for being some of the most polluted on the planet, have cleared under India’s nation-wide lockdown.


But scratching at the surface, the situation is more complicated. Decreased emissions as a result of the virus are not expected to have a lasting impact. As the economy kicks back into gear and postponed events, travel and projects play catch-up, we are likely to see a post-COVID emissions rebound. There is precedence from the Global Financial Crisis. In 2009, global emissions dropped by 1.4 per cent. They bounced back by 5.1 per cent in 2010.


It was also hoped that the virus would benefit the climate change cause by revitalising the multilateral fora needed to address transnational challenges such as pandemics and environment degradation. The China-West Dialogue and the G7 and G20 leaders meetings, all held virtually in March, emphasised the need for a coordinated response to the virus. It is the same spirit of collective action that is needed to address climate change.


But these words have not been matched with action. At the G20 meeting, leaders committed to doing ‘whatever it takes’ to combat the virus, yet failed to detail concrete plans and financing.


Meanwhile, we have seen a rise in nationalist sentiment as the ‘blame game’ over who is responsible for the virus intensifies. While the United States’ insists on unconstructively calling it the ‘Wuhan Virus’, Chinese propaganda has tried to raise doubts about the virus’ origins. This is far from the collaborative approach needed to address a transnational challenge, be that COVID-19 or climate change.


Legislative opportunism was also a means through which it was hoped that the virus might help counteract climate change. In the United States (US), in addition to the Republican’s COVID-19 economic stimulus bill, Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, introduced an alternative bill that incorporated emissions reform into the stimulus package.


Unfortunately, it never passed, with Republicans accusing Democrats of using the virus as a justification for more big government programs.


It gets worse. Many countries have scaled back on climate change initiatives, citing the economic impacts of the virus. Poland declared that it will not meet the EU’s climate goals, China is considering postponing new automobile emissions standards and the United States has relaxed pollution regulations. These changes are indicative of the way in which the virus is undermining climate ambitions, a trend that many are worried will define a post-COVID world.


COP 26, the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference, has been postponed to an undetermined date in 2021. In a powerful metaphor of the effect of the virus on climate change, the COP 26 venue, Glasgow’s Scottish Exhibition & Conference Centre, has been converted into a field hospital.


It is not all bad news. COVID-induced economic stimuli are an opportunity to begin the structural reform needed to transition towards a greener economy. It is a chance to direct funds towards reskilling workforces and investing in the capital needed to shift away from a reliance on polluting industries. There is already COVID recovery plans being developed abroad that shift away from a neoliberal focus on deregulation towards a framework which fosters environmentally-friendly economic development.


Tying environmental reform to economic stimuli isn’t a new idea. In 2008, the Obama administration implemented stricter efficiency standards as part of their auto industry bail-out. It also invested over $145 billion in clean energy and transportation as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In South Korea, 80 per cent of its 2009 stimulus package was allocated to environmental measures. It was one of the fastest countries to recover from the Global Financial Crisis.


How do we make this happen in Australia? Climate change is a political football and right now it has been kicked out of bounds. Keeping the environment on the agenda during times like these requires vision from our leaders.


Given the economic downturn, climate change initiatives should focus on the carrot, not the stick. Economic stimuli should ensure that businesses meeting certain environmental standards are eligible for higher levels of support. Solutions to structural unemployment should be focused on growing renewable industries through soft start-up loans and subsidies. There are plenty of examples internationally that Australia could use to guide this transformation.


When emissions dropped off during the GFC it was said that 2008 could be the year that global emissions peak. It wasn’t. Now we have a second chance. And a second curve that needs flattening.


Some argue that it’s insensitive to push the climate cause in a COVID crisis. Perhaps it is. But it is selfish not to. We have an opportunity to jump-start the economy and clean up the environment. The next generation won’t thank us if we mend our wallets using polluting industries. To endure the virus only to lock-in an unsustainable future would be compounding our losses.


Maddie Gordon is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs



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