What Does Covid-19 Mean for the Planet?
By Will McAneny
Clear waters in the canals of Venice. Clean air in normally-polluted cities. Reports like these have led the eco-conscious among us to wonder: Amidst the public health crisis and economic disaster wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, could there be a positive impact on the environment?
Short-term outcomes point to “yes.” After the Chinese government shut down large swathes of the country to mitigate the spread of the virus, CO2 emissions dropped by 200 million tons in a single month. That’s equivalent to nearly half of the CO2 that South Africa emits in a year.
However, climate activists should be more cautious than optimistic. Dig deeper into the data, and the results are troubling. While they’re still well-below pre-COVID levels, China’s emissions are already starting to rebound. The United States and China, the world’s two largest producers of greenhouse gases, have both indicated that they plan to relax environmental regulations in order to stimulate their struggling economies.
More worrisome still, some climate scientists doubt whether the COVID-19 anomaly can undo the damage we’ve already done. If the worldwide “lockdown” measures taken so far continued through the end of the year—an unlikely outcome—global carbon emissions would be reduced by around 5%. However, to limit a rise in global temperatures to a mere 1.5 degrees Centigrade, global CO2 emissions would need to drop by more than 7%.
So far, the only way we’ve gotten close to that target is by sacrificing the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and the livelihoods of millions more. That’s alarming news.
So will today’s short-term environmental impacts be just a blip in a troubling trend… or can we make them last? The answer is up to us.
Many climate experts see an opportunity in economic stimulus. At the time of writing, national governments had pledged to inject USD $5 trillion (nearly R95 trillion) into their economies. By diverting some of that money and investing it in renewable energy, nations could curb some of their worst polluters while creating jobs and giving emerging industries a chance to truly flourish.
Optimists also wonder whether the global attention generated by this crisis will translate into a global will to address others—climate change foremost among them. COVID-19 knows no borders, and therefore requires international cooperation to solve. Perhaps world leaders will learn valuable lessons from this global pandemic and apply them to the global climate crisis.
On the other hand, the opposite could take place. Even with the stimulus that’s occurring right now, more climate-friendly sectors like renewable energy could continue to struggle. Experiencing a drop in revenue due to dwindling donations and event cancellations, nonprofits that fight to protect the environment might suffer. At the highest level, distracted world leaders might sideline environmentally-friendly climate negotiations, setting the global climate movement back years.
So what are we to do?
Times are tough, and the path forward is murky at best. However, there are steps you can take to make sure that we transition from this dark moment to a brighter future.
- Start with your own home. For many of us, the immediate priority is survival. But for those of us with the luxury to work from home, now is the time to pick up that earth-friendly home project. Want to plant a garden or start a home compost? Today is the day!
- Advocate for the planet online. The actions of a single person pale in comparison to the damage wrought by large-scale industry. But the actions of many, together, are formidable. People are far more likely to become changemakers themselves if they are encouraged by someone they know. Share your actions, tweet articles, and become an advocate for the earth in your own virtual communities.
- Buy local, buy small, buy sustainable. Compared to larger retailers, small businesses are less likely to have the investors or capital reserves that will help them bounce back. If you’re in a position to choose between a big chain and a local business as you purchase food or household items, now is the perfect time to think small—especially if that small business is committed to minimizing packaging or using sustainable materials.
- Support environmental nonprofits if you’re able. Right now, much of our attention is focused on immediate relief for those most affected by COVID-19. That’s the right thing to do: to mitigate the worst effects of this crisis, we must take immediate action. However, someday this will end… and when it does, the earth will still be here, in need of our help. When that day comes, Greenpop and our fellow green warriors will still be fighting to ensure we leave our earth better than we found it.
The author, Will McAneny, is Greenpop’s former Communications Manager and is volunteering his time from Chicago, USA.
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