Impact of Covid-19 and climate change

FOR the first time in a long time, two global phenomena came together with devastating destruction. Both Covid-19 and greenhouses gas (GHG) emissions don’t care for borders. Both put the world’s poor and vulnerable at greater risk than all else.

Both also interact – shutting down swathes of the economy and causing life as we know it to a virtual standstill. But it led to huge cuts in worldwide GHG daily emissions estimated at 17% below what they were in the same first week of April, last year.

Global industrial GHG emissions are now expected to be about 8% lower in 2020, the largest annual drop since WWII.

Still, the world will have more than 90% of the necessary decarbonisation left to do in the face of a pandemic, in order to be on track to meet the Paris Agreement’s ambitious goal: of a climate only 1.5 degree Celcius warmer than it was before the Industrial Revolution.

Carbon pricing

The challenges ahead create a unique chance to enact government policies that steer the economy away from carbon at a lower financial, social and political cost than might otherwise have been the case.

Today’s low energy prices will make it easier to cut subsidies for fossil fuels; and more importantly, to introduce a tax on carbon. Revenues from the tax over the next decade can help repair battered government finances. Getting economies back on their feet through investment in friendly infrastructure will boost growth and create new jobs. Low interest rates today make it much cheaper.

Carbon pricing can ensure that the shift happens in the most efficient way possible. The timing is particularly propitious because the costs of wind and solar power have tumbled.

A relatively small push from a carbon price can give renewables a decisive advantage – one which can become permanent as wider deployment made them cheaper still.

True, carbon prices are not popular with politicians.

Even so, Europe is planning an expansion of its carbon-pricing scheme; and China is instituting a brand new one.

Proceeds from a carbon tax can be over 1% of gross domestic product (GDP); and this money can either be paid as a dividend to the public or, help lower government debts (which will reach 122% of GDP in advanced nations, and will rise even further if green investments are debt-financed).

Negative emissions

To be sure, carbon pricing by itself is unlikely to create a network of electric-vehicle charging-points; more nuclear power plants and programmes to retrofit inefficient buildings; and to develop technologies aimed at reducing emissions that cannot simply be electrified away (such as those from large aircrafts and farms).

They could be counterbalanced by “negative emissions” that take carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere at a similar rate, i.e. through developing negative emission technologies; more gentle emissions cut in the near future to be made up by negative emissions later on; farming in ways that make the soil richer in organic carbon; restoring degraded forests and planting new ones; growing plantation crops, burning them to generate electricity and sequestering the carbon dioxide given off underground; and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.

In these areas, subsidies and direct government investment are needed.

Some governments have already put efforts into greening their Covid-19 bailouts. In other countries, the risk is of climate damaging policies: US has been relaxing its environment rules; whereas China continues to build new coal plants.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that emissions of CO2 in 2019 had remained the same (33.3 billion tonnes) as the previous years.

Energy-related emissions (which include those produced by electricity generation, heating and transport) account for more than 70% of the world’s industrial CO2 pollution.

The stall seems to have been caused by a fall in coal and oil use, combined with a rise in the use of renewable power.

As a result, CO2 intensity of electricity generation – i.e. how much gas is emitted per kilowatt-hour of juice produced – fell by nearly 6.5%, to 340g of CO2 per kilowatt-hour. It had already been falling, but this is three times the average for the past decade.

Such falls more than offset the effect of increased electricity production. This emission-intensity in 2019 was “lower than all but the most efficient gas-fired power plants, ” according to IEA. This is not the first-time energy-related emissions have plateaued.

Between 2013 and 2015, they hovered around 32.2 billion tonnes a year, before rising again in 2017 as the use of coal to fuel developing economies increased.

In addition to changes in coal and oil use, a sluggish economy may have played a part; also, milder than usual weather caused a perceptible drop in emissions from several countries with large, carbon-hungry economies. This may be tempered by the latest destruction of the Amazon rainforest, one of the world’s largest woodlands.

Historically, it acted as an absorbing sponge for CO2 by removing it from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Researchers at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research indicated that about one-fifth of south-east Amazon has lost its ability to soak up the gas, and is now a net source of emissions instead. Most disappointing.

Carpe Covid

I should say the Covid-19 pause is not inherently climate-friendly. Nations need to make it so, the aim being to show that by 2021, they will have made sufficient progress to meet the Paris target commitments.

The pandemic demonstrated that the foundations of prosperity are precarious. Disasters come without warning, shaking all that seemed stable. Indeed, the harm from climate change will be slower than the pandemic, but more massive and longer lasting. There is a lesson to be learnt.

What then are we to do

Warming depends on the cumulative emissions to date; a fraction of one year’s toll makes no appreciable difference. But returning the world to the emission levels of 2010 – for a 7% drop – raises the tantalising prospect of crossing a psychologically significant boundary.

I think the peak in CO2 emissions from fossil fuels may be a lot closer than many assume. That such emissions have to peak, and soon, is a central tenet of climate policy.

Precisely when they might do so, though, is policy dependent. We know the idea of stripping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is fraught with problems.

One is the scale to make a difference. Imagine that in 2060 the world manages to renounce 90% of its fossil fuel use.

To offset the remaining recalcitrant 10% will still mean soaking up about one billion tonnes of carbon a year. Industrial systems currently operate at barely a thousandth of that scale.

Creating such a flow through photosynthesis will require, I think, a plantation the size of Mexico. The second problem: imaginary backstops are dangerous. They deter nations in undertaking the huge efforts required to make the needed negative emissions a reality.

And a third: the known unknowns – high likelihood of drought and crop failures; changes to regional climate that upset whole economies; storms more destructive in both their winds and their rains; seawater submerging beaches and infiltrating aquifers – all add to more anxiety. And in the spaces in between, are the unknown unknowns – as surprising, and deadly, as a thunderstorm that kills and the great ice-sheets that are doomed slowly to collapse.

Above all, only the pathway embodying the strongest climate action (much stronger than what is promised so far) can allow the world to keep the temperature rise since the 18th century well below two degree Celcius in the 21st.

This had led a new generation of climate activists to demand greater commitments at the next UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

There remain serious problems: how to get people and nations who do not share their passion and commitment, to do more – much more. If governments really want to limit climate change, they must do more. They do not have to do everything; but need to send out clear signals. Around the world, they currently provide US$400bil a year in direct support for fossil fuel consumption; more than twice what they spend subsidising renewable production.

A price on carbon, which hastens the day when new renewables are sustainably cheaper than old fossil fuel plants, is a crucial step.

So is research spending aimed at those emissions which are hard to electrify away. Governments have played a vital role in the development of solar panels, wind turbines and fracking. There is a lot more to do. However much they do, though, and however well they do it, they will not stop what’s on-going.

On today’s policies, I think the rise by the end of the century looks closer to three degree Celcius. Besides trying to limit climate change, I am afraid the world also needs to learn how to adapt to it.

The views expressed are the writer’s own.

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