Climate breakdown hasn't gone away you know.
By Karen O'Connell
In the midst of this crisis we must not forget the other great challenges that preceded the arrival of Covid-19, climate change chief among them.
The impact of Covid-19 is nothing short of devastating for humanity, impacting every part of our society. These are difficult days and it is hoped the social and economic restrictions introduced will save lives and protect our most vulnerable from this tenacious virus. Our society is showing huge fortitude and frontline staff are rightly being hailed as hero’s.
Covid-19 is a serious, but hopefully short term challenge. Despite the global pandemic, the impact of climate change has not diminished. With this global emergency it is perhaps easy to forget the recent bushfires which ravaged Australia from December 2019, well into 2020. Australia also experienced its hottest and driest year on record in 2019, as well as its hottest day at 41.9°C (1). The bushfires led to loss of life, property, as well having a huge economic toll on the country. Closer to home, February was the second warmest February on record for Europe, indeed this is a global trend (2).
With the curtailment of social activity, social and business travel globally, there is a downturn in worldwide fossil fuel use. The European Space Agency reported decreases in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations in Europe in March and April 2020 compared with the same time in 20193. NO2 levels decreased approximately 45% in Madrid, Milan and Rome, with a 54% drop in Paris (3). NASA also reported a significant decrease of nitrogen dioxide over China (4). Nitrogen dioxide is emitted by traffic sources, industry and power generation, and contributes to certain respiratory problems (5).
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, China’s carbon emissions are reported to have dropped an estimated 18% between February and mid-March (6). This reduction is because of falls in industry output, however, the levels have since rebounded with the return to industrial activity. The European Union’s carbon emissions are also predicted to drop during the pandemic due to a decrease in manufacturing and energy demands. However, Oceanographer geochemist Ralph Keeling (of Scripps Institution of Oceanography) believes that a global decline of fossil fuel use of 10% would need to be sustained over a year to show any decline of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere (7). The Keeling Curve, is a daily record of global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration maintained by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego (8).
While Covid-19 has resulted in a sudden decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, by no means has it stopped the progression of climate change. According to Ralph Keeling, in the 62 year history of the Keeling Curve no economic event, including the 2008 recession or the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, has caused the necessary drop in carbon emissions to date.
The Covid19 health emergency is having many negative impacts on our society, people are dying, there is a huge burden on our healthcare system to cope, there are numerous job losses and the full extent of its impact may not be fully understood for some time. What we do know is that there is an inevitable economic downturn that needs to be faced when life returns to normal. Executive Secretary, of the United Nations Climate Change, Patricia Espinosa, says we now have an opportunity for countries to ensure a greener, cleaner and more resilient economy (9). The need to implement The Paris Agreement to keep global temperature rise well below 2°C and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (10) has never been more urgent. The Covid-19 crisis, and the sense of common purpose it has inspired worldwide, should be harnessed toward addressing climate change; which in the long term demands to be addressed just as seriously.