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What COVID-19 is teaching us about climate change

Making sense of the impact on society
Dr Tamsin Edwards

Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography, Department of Geography

22 April 2020

Staying in during COVID-19 is having a profound effect on our environment, including lowering levels of air pollution, but is it enough? Dr Tamsin Edwards, climate scientist and a Lead Author of the next report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), assesses the impact of the pandemic on emissions and asks whether it will pave the way for the kind of global co-operation needed to act on climate change.

Living in central London, I can now breathe deeply. Vehicles create air pollution – such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxides – from their fuel combustion, tyres and brakes, which cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and lung cancer. A week after the UK lockdown started, air quality sensors in the London Air Quality Network, run by King’s College London, registered such low readings they looked faulty.

The effects of travelling less by car

King’s estimates that 28,000 to 36,000 deaths in the UK each year can be attributed to long-term air pollution, compared with fewer than 2,000 from road traffic accidents –  while the World Health Organisation estimates that a staggering 4.2 million deaths per year worldwide are a result of outdoor air pollution (around 1 in 13 of all deaths). But there is an important caveat: while cleaner air for a period of months will undoubtedly benefit people’s health, we would need long-term change to eradicate diseases caused by vehicle pollution completely. And industrial pollution, of course, continues.

Long-term change might happen if some of our remote working habits remain. This has been an immensely challenging period for those with young children, but for those that could be at home – or need to be – there can be benefits in reducing travel and increasing flexibility.– Dr Tamsin Edwards

So, what effect could it have on our carbon emissions – if we stopped all work-related car journeys for good? According to the National Transport Survey, 36% of UK car mileage in 2017 was for commuting or business. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which advises the UK Government on how to reach ‘Net Zero’ carbon emissions by 2050, stating that cars (ie not HGVs, vans or buses) were responsible for a huge 14% of UK greenhouse gas emissions that year. That means up to 5% of our emissions (1 in 20 tonnes) could potentially be prevented if we were to replace those journeys with remote working (or low emissions journeys, such as electric vehicles or rail). The CCC assumes in their main Net Zero scenario that only 10% of car miles would be replaced with public transport, walking or cycling – and does not incorporate any decrease due to videoconferencing. Of course, many of those journeys could not easily or quickly be replaced, but the question remains: should we be more ambitious?

What about flight emissions?

Flights are, of course, a high profile and contentious part of reducing carbon emissions, with furious debates about both necessity and equality. In 2018, around 1 in 7 people in the UK took three or more flights, and virtually all our emissions were from international flights. But the CCC reports that only 20% of flights are taken for business, so they assume there will be no reduction in demand by videoconferencing in their pathway to Net Zero.

Aviation emissions are also only half those of cars: around 7% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, though their warming effect is doubled by nitrogen oxides and the clouds formed by condensation trails – now absent from our skies on these clear spring days. That means we could potentially reduce our emissions by around 1.5%, if all business flights ceased, with further savings if we reduced incoming flights for meetings held in the UK. In other words, two to three times less than the potential saving from car journeys.

We still won’t meet the limits of the Paris Agreement

Replacing travel with videoconferencing, even permanently, even globally, will never be enough to reach net zero carbon emissions and keep global warming within the limits of the Paris Agreement. But we knew that: we knew that it would take transformative change, and that means every part of our lives – our homes, food, industry – not just flights and traffic jams. We also know, though, that each dent in the total helps: especially when those dents have ‘co-benefits’ to our quality of life and health.

On the other hand, the overall economic downturn will dent emissions further but hurt vulnerable people worldwide. Some have hoped we can try and make something good for people and planet come from this terrible tragedy; some have articulated this desire thoughtfully, others clumsily. It is important to note too that, like travel, a short-term decrease in emissions would only have a substantial impact on the climate if it were the seed of a persistent change.

Global oil demand fell last month by up to 20%, a historic low, but estimates of the impact on 2020 carbon emissions vary widely: a decrease between 0.5% and 5% (rather than the usual annual increase of about 1%). The 2008 recession led to a 1.5% decrease but emissions quickly bounced back to business-as-usual. Persistent change might come about if we are able to design economic relief and stimulus packages with the co-benefits of low carbon transition in mind. One thing that concerns me is that such decisions will be made by the fortunate: those less burdened by illness and caring duties, insecure income and housing, poor health care. As ever, a fair future needs fair decision-making to bring it about.

The future of global cooperation and climate change

Will our responses to this pandemic prepare us in any sense for the global co-operation, political leadership informed by science, and transformative will, needed to act on climate change? Or will it confirm and amplify the challenges, with our human frailties and inequalities, our susceptibility to conspiracy and mistrust and selfishness, the damage done to economic systems we take for granted?

James Murray articulated these opposites and contradictions clearly – if pessimistically – in his article on the myth of silver linings. In any case, it is right to postpone November’s climate negotiations (COP26) to 2021, so we can focus on saving lives now then slowly rebuild.

One thing is certain: the future will be both better and worse than we imagine. We see already – in our communities and politicians – that the pandemic brings out the best and worst in us. The balance between the two is the sum of our choices. We cannot control our lives under lockdown, but we can bring food to our neighbour who cannot leave her home. We cannot make the future more certain, but we can make it more bearable for those in need. We cannot take away the fear, but we can support those who must face that fear most directly. We can nurture seeds of hope and use this time as a practice run for being more human.

This is an edited excerpt taken from Dr Tamsin Edward’s blog, All Models Are Wrong. You can read the full entry here.

Tamsin also recently appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth series.

In this story

Tamsin Edwards

Tamsin Edwards

Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography

Making sense of the impact on society

Across society, each and every one of us are experiencing unprecedented changes to all aspects of our daily lives. Using their expertise, our researchers are working tirelessly to assess and…

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