When lockdown began, climate scientists were horrified at the unfolding tragedy, but also intrigued to observe what they called an “inadvertent experiment” on a global scale. To what extent, they asked, would the Earth system respond to the steepest slowdown in human activity since the second world war?
Environmental activists put the question more succinctly: how much would it help to save the planet?
Almost one year on from the first reported Covid case, the short answer is: not enough. In fact, experts say the pandemic may have made some environmental problems worse, though there is still a narrow window of opportunity for something good to come from something bad if governments use their economic stimulus packages to promote a green recovery.
During the northern hemisphere spring, when restrictions were at their strictest, the human footprint softened to a level not seen in decades. Flights halved, road traffic in the UK fell by more than 70%. Industrial emissions in China, the world’s biggest source of carbon, were down about 18% between early February and mid-March – a cut of 250m tonnes. Car use in the United States declined by 40%. So light was humankind’s touch on the Earth that seismologists were able to detect lower vibrations from “cultural noise” than before the pandemic.
The respite was too short to reverse decades of destruction, but it did provide a glimpse of what the world might feel like without fossil fuels and with more space for nature.
Wildlife did not have time to reclaim lost territory but it had scope for exploration. Alongside apocalyptic images of deserted roads, the internet briefly buzzed with heartwarming clips of sheep in a deserted playground in Monmouthshire, Wales, coyotes on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, wild boar snuffling through the streets of Barcelona, and deer grazing not far from the White House in Washington DC. Wildflowers flourished on roadsides because verges were cut less frequently.
In the global south, the picture was more mixed. Rhino poaching declined in Tanzania due to disruption of supply chains and restrictions on cross-border movements, but bushmeat hunting, illegal firewood collection and incursions into protected areas increased in India, Nepal and Kenya because local communities lost tourist income and sought other ways to care for their families.
In Brazil, traditional guardians of the Amazon have been weakened. The Xavante and Yanomami indigenous groups have been strongly impacted by the disease, and the lockdown has kept forest rangers at home. Meanwhile, land grabbers, fire-starters and illegal miners were busier than ever. Deforestation in Brazil hit a 12-year high.
That is a saving of 1.5 to 2.5bn metric tons of CO2 pollution, but it merely slowed the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere, leaving the world on course for more than 3.2C of warming by the end of this century. In its annual emissions gap report, the United Nations environment programme said the impact of the lockdown was “negligible”, equivalent to just 0.01Cdifference by 2030.
On a more optimistic note, it said ambitious green recovery spending could put the world back on track for the Paris agreement target of less than 2C of warming.
There is scant sign of that so far. Although China, the EU, the UK, Japan and South Korea have all recently announced carbon neutral targets by the mid-century, no nation is doing enough to achieve such a goal. Most stimulus spending is going to fossil fuel industries that are making the climate worse rather than to renewables that could make it better. These twisted priorities have raised concerns that the Covid lockdown may end up like the 2008-09 financial crisis, which led to a brief fall in emissions followed by a surge back to record highs.
“Based on how little of the roughly $15tn in stimulus spending has gone to green energy and clean tech, I think Covid will delay the transition to a carbon-free future,” said Rob Jackson, the chair of Global Carbon Project. In China, he said, emissions were already back to 2019 levels, while other governments were using the pandemic as an excuse to delay climate action in the aviation sector.
In the US, Donald Trump has gone further in his demonstration of crisis capitalism by rolling back a raft of environmental protections and ramping up support for fossil fuels.
Whether this is a blip or a turning point depends on action at the national and international level. As the climate-limp stimulus packages have shown, national governments are reluctant to change direction alone. Global cooperation is therefore essential.