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28th May 2021

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What lessons can the COVID-19 pandemic teach us about tackling climate change? Huw Morris talks to the scientists who are coming to some striking conclusions

Like many people in March 2020, Piers Forster unexpectedly found himself with plenty of time on his hands.

The professor of physical climate change at the University of Leeds and director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate suddenly saw his work trips and public engagements evaporate. He and his colleagues were yet to discover the joys of Zoom and Microsoft Teams as the COVID-19 pandemic exploded. Then, unconnected developments came together.

Forster decided to use this free time to teach himself to code Python computing language – which brought his attention to Google’s mobility data, released in April 2020, and similar information provided by Apple. At the same time, his daughter Harriet’s A Level exams were cancelled, meaning she also found herself free. “Harriet asked me one day about what the climate impact of the pandemic would be, and I said something like, I don’t know, but let’s try and find out’,” he says.

What started as a home-school project soon triggered a stampede in major research.

Lockdown’s effect on emissions

Using methods developed by the University of East Anglia and Stanford University, Forster and colleagues from across the UK, Europe and the US investigated trends in road transport, industry, power generation and other activities. They deduced that, using Google and Apple’s mobility data, they could find out the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by these sectors, and how much their activity dropped during lockdown. They could then estimate any emissions change.

Ultimately, this meant looking across the 123 countries responsible for 99% of global emissions. The team then considered how any changes would influence the global temperature during the two years between the start of China’s lockdown and the end of 2021.

“COVID-19 and climate change share a marked similarity: the worst damage is only averted when society commits to decisive and early action”

The project looked at carbon dioxide emissions, the biggest cause of human-made global warming, but also nitrous oxides produced by fossil fuels, which fell due to lower road transport use. Sulphur dioxide emissions from heavy industry and power plants dropped, too.

This led to an unexpected insight: the temporary fall in carbon dioxide emissions during lockdown was effectively negligible. According to the research, even if some lockdown measures were to stay in place for the best part of two years, global temperatures would only be 0.01°C lower than they would otherwise have been.

“This is for two reasons,” says Forster. “The first is that, because carbon dioxide is so long in the atmosphere, making a cut – even a big cut – for one year doesn’t really have a lasting effect. We need to get emissions all the way to zero and keep them there to halt global warming.

“The effects of big drops in short-lived pollution, especially nitrous oxide from cars, sulphur dioxide from reduced coal use and reduced contrails from less flying, did have short-term effects on climate. But they acted differently and, to some extent, cancelled each other out. Reduced sulphur dioxide pollution caused warming as clouds became less reflective, cancelling out the cooling effects of less car and plane travel.”

Put bluntly, lockdowns had no dramatic effect on climate change.

COVID-19 and climate change

These findings complement the work of another team of scientists at Oxford University and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. This looked at comparisons between COVID-19 and climate change, and the implications for mitigation policy.

“COVID-19 and climate change share a marked similarity: the worst damage is only averted when society commits to decisive and early action in the face of a seemingly abstract threat,” says Franziska Funke, research assistant at the Environmental Change Institute and a visiting doctoral student at Oxford University’s Institute for New Economic Thinking. “There are good reasons to believe climate change will be even harder to defeat, even though – or precisely because – there is more time to confront it. The current pandemic is an exceptional opportunity to understand where the real challenges lie for progression on climate action: in garnering political will and public support.”

In their research published in Environmental and Resource Economics, the Oxford University and European Commission team drew five lessons for mitigation policy from the pandemic:

  • Delay is costly
  • Policy design must overcome biases to human judgment
  • Inequality can be made worse without timely action
  • Global problems require multiple forms of international co-operation
  • Scientific policy advice must transparently balance fact with value judgments on social, economic or ethical trade-offs. This must be effectively communicated to counter misinformation.

Linus Mattauch, also of Oxford University’s Institute for New Economic Thinking and a team member, says it is crucial to realise that when comparing COVID-19 and the climate crisis, the cost to society of transforming to a low-carbon economy is far cheaper.

“Politically, there are reasons to believe, however, that climate change is harder to stop than COVID-19,” he adds. “Tackling both issues inevitably creates ‘losers’, and policy action is inevitably constrained by public opinion and polarisation. But since the threat from the climate crisis is less immediate and the damaging impacts on societies are more indirect, it is more difficult to mobilise public support for the changes required for decarbonisation – especially in those sectors where the changes are very visible to citizens, such as low-carbon urban transport or agriculture.”

“Most importantly, perhaps, we can learn from government responses to the pandemic that climate change mitigation measures must be designed to take account of citizens’ concerns. Protecting affected communities and low-income households from severe price increases and making visible the many benefits of climate protection, such as cleaner air, can build support and avoid public opposition to phasing out fossil fuels.”

Sustainable change

Forster agrees, pointing out that investing 1.2% of GDP in a green recovery could reduce emissions by 50% and halve warming between now and 2050. Lockdowns showed that society can change quickly and cut emissions substantially, he argues. Some changes – digital meetings, active travel such as cycling and walking, and working from home – are likely to remain.

“However, lockdown also showed that solving climate change by giving up everything – such as travel, eating out and shopping – is not a workable long-term answer for our societies or economies. People have lost jobs.

“Behaviour change only gets you so far. You need to build the zero-carbon infrastructure so that our travel, homes and workplaces are all zero-carbon. This will also create great, well-paid jobs in burgeoning green industries and create a healthier more resilient world, so that societies can thrive.”

Sobering as the respective teams’ findings are, one footnote should be added: Harriet Forster received an author credit alongside her father and 12 other climate experts when their research was published in Nature Climate Change last August, ironically when her exam results were due. Her A-levels might have been cancelled, but she is now a credited scientist.

Data’s role in accelerating science

Forster points out that most climate projections align to seven-year cycles of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Reports. Emission data for carbon dioxide takes a couple of years to finalise, he adds, while for other gases, data takes five years or so to produce.

“Think if we had waited for five years of COVID-19 data before analysing it to invent vaccines,” says Forster. “By putting data and code instantly online for researchers to explore, we had a massive acceleration of the science to understand the disease and develop treatments. I think this helped far more than any cash injection, although you need both. Think how much faster we could develop climate solutions with the same speed of research and access to data.

“The Google data that we used, provided in near-real time, was a real boon for our research into emissions trends. However, there are no guarantees that Google will continue to provide it. They are also sitting on data for earlier years that would provide a proper baseline to make our results far more accurate.

“I really want these companies to see the worth in giving much more of our data back to us for the benefit of both health and climate research.”

Huw Morris is a freelance journalist.

Image credit: iStock


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