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The coronavirus pandemic and climate change

Coronavirus-and-Climate-Change-Web The coronavirus pandemic and climate change-what have we learned?

The skies are bluer, there are virtually no con-trails creating cloud cover, and the air smells so much cleaner. It's just like the olden days that our grandparents would wax nostalgically about. Doubtless, the shutdown has improved air quality in our cities, and the effect is global. But is it just a blip or will it have a long term impact on health and climate change? 

Wuhan lockdown cuts air pollution by 63% 

Recent research suggests that the lockdown in Wuhan reduced air pollution from nitrogen dioxide by a staggering 63%. Authors of the research paper calculated that it prevented over 10,800 deaths across China - more than twice China's official (?) number of deaths from Covid-19. They based the figure on computer modelling that compensated for the effect of weather. In Oxford, UK, nitrogen dioxide levels were down by 59%, and in New York, they were reduced by 50%.

The 'lockdown' impact on greenhouse gases 

Although nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is toxic, it has an only weak greenhouse effect, unlike nitrous oxide (N2O), which is 300 times more harmful than carbon dioxide (CO2). So how much have greenhouse gasses been reduced? 

That is a complicated figure to estimate, though various organisations have tried to do so. One estimate suggests that during 2020 there will be a 25% reduction in China and 24.4% in Europe. The figures are based on reductions in air and land transport plus reduced power demand. They also assume a 50% drop in industrial production up to June followed by a twelve-month return to full production. Airlines emissions are estimated to fall by up to 80% over the next six months.

Not everyone agrees with those figures. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that greenhouse gas emissions will fall by 8%, which it describes as extraordinary and the biggest decline since World War II. However, that is only the amount of reduction that the UN has called for every year if we are to avoid exceeding 1.5 degrees C of global warming.

Another approach is to look at the effect of the lockdown on global economies. There appears to be a correlation between GDP and greenhouse gas emission. Historically, for each 1% increase in GDP, greenhouse gas emissions increase by 0.73% and for each 1% decrease in GDP greenhouse gasses fall by 0.43%. The Bank of England estimates that the UK economy will shrink by 14% in 2020; if this is mirrored globally, it would suggest a fall in emissions of around 7%.

The long term climate change impact of Covid-19

The long term climate change impact of Covid-19.Image by Colin D Unsplash

The long term impact will depend on how long the various lockdown measures last, particularly in China and the US, which between them account for almost half (44%) of global greenhouse gas emissions. The European Union, including the UK, is the third-largest polluter at 10%. 

Across the world, governments are keen to get their economies working as quickly as possible. There are also vast reserves of low-cost fossil fuels waiting to fire up the recovery. There will undoubtedly be an immediate massive increase in emissions,
However, we will not replace the greenhouse gasses that we did not emit. As we have said, most estimates suggest this is 8%, and others suggest a much higher 25%, this is at least 2.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide we will never emit.
However, the overall impact will be small. Greenhouse gas levels will recover quickly, and the planet will continue to warm. The tipping point might be delayed by months, possibly by a year or so, but, in the scheme of things, not for very long.

Covid climate change hope on the horizon 

There is hope that the coronavirus crisis has taught us some lessons about our planet. At the very least, we are now aware of the potential global impact of such an unprecedented event. Inadvertently, the coronavirus has reduced emissions by more than we humans have ever achieved in all our efforts to green transport and the economy. 

The primary hope is the pandemic has opened our minds to new technology and ensuring that once we get the people's health and world economies back up and running we don't forget the planet, its ecosystem, and our duty to ensure its viability for future generations. 
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