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Why Corona is (not) good for the climate

Reactions to climate change in times of a pandemic.

In times of social isolation and confinement, I find myself spending a lot of time on the internet. Probably more than before the corona-crisis and hopefully more than thereafter. To my surprise, I read many anti-climate comments on social media and below articles of journals and media platforms.

I do not want to quote any individual comments, but I will briefly summarize the headlines:

  • The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has gone down.

  • The coronavirus is good for the climate, as people fly less, consume less and produce less. Once the crisis is over, we can produce and travel even more.

  • Dear "greens": why do you cause all this noise around climate change? Corona has saved the climate. So, please, forget all the green measures over the next few years and focus on relaunching the economy.

  • [I could go on for a while ...]

It is true that we are now experiencing a period with less activity. Local emissions are indeed reduced because we produce and travel less. This temporarily has a positive effect on air quality due to reduced pollution and exhaust emissions.

Unfortunately, there is one property of CO2 that even the coronavirus cannot ignore

The lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere is several centuries. 60% to 80% of CO2 is absorbed by the ocean or the biosphere after a period of 20–200 years. The remaining quantity is removed by slow processes (for example chemical weathering or rock formation) which can last from a few hundreds to thousands of years. This means that once CO2 is emitted to the atmosphere, it can affect the climate for thousands of years.

We can also not be satisfied when CO2 flows into the ocean. In the ocean, CO2 reacts with the seawater and forms carbonic acid. This increases the acidity of the seawater, which could have long-term consequences on underwater life and thus on our global food chain (not to mention the coral reefs being destroyed). CO2 remains a problem, independent of corona !

What does this mean for the planet?

The atmosphere today has a CO2 concentration of 408-416 parts per million and the planet has already heated up by around 1°C. If humanity continues to emit CO2 in the rhythm of “pre-corona” (+ 2-3 ppm per year), then we will reach 430 ppm in 2028-2030, which is the limit for 1.5°C. At present corona times, the CO2 concentration remains constant at 408-416 ppm, because temporarily not much CO2 is emitted.

[Source: NOAA - with edits]

We should therefore not be talking about a reduction of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, but about a stagnation.

If we fall right back into the old behavioral pattern of pre-corona, the temporary effect on climate will be vanished. When global production and consumption return to normal, our planet will warm up again. Therefore, at best, coronavirus delays the climate problem by the amount of months we spend in confinement.

At this place, I would like to mention two quotes from the Luxembourgish press. RTL quoted the Ministry of the Environment, saying [translated from Luxembourgish]: "It would be as if you would quit smoking for a few weeks and then start again." Wort’s edition of the 3rd of April said: "The climate crisis is one of many tasks that do cannot be postponed."

The time after Corona: what happens to the climate?

Corona's only positive effect on the climate may be that it could act as a wake-up call for many fellow citizens. A proof of what we can achieve as a society when a problem is urgent. That we, as a society, can set priorities. That we must treat a crisis with the necessary determination and seriousness. We cannot procrastinate for the coming decades so that we run straight into the next crisis.

There will be a time after the pandemic, in which many political measures will be taken to relaunch the economy. Then, climate often no longer is a priority, as witnessed in the years after 2008. Our government has the unique opportunity to take "green" measures and to link the economic stimulus to the climate targets. Innovative, green, Luxembourg - as we pitch the nation so often.

A proposal for funding these measures comes from the Imperial College in London, in the form of "carbon dividends". Governments could put a tax on fuel prices (even if the reason of recent price decreases is not just Corona), thus bringing back their prices to the level ahead pre-corona (e.g. from current prices of 0.9 € / liter [05/04] back to around 1.2 € / liter). Revenue could then either be directly distributed to private households, or used to fund green measures.

Equally, Western countries should assess whether they want to remain dependent on China-centered global supply chains or whether they want to bring more jobs "home". This would in the long run create local jobs, if the consumer is be prepared to pay a small premium. Here too, carbon dividends could be used to alleviate this reshoring.

Last, the renewable energy fleet, which the government wants to expand by 2030, is a potential source of job creation, both during construction and in operation. It is important to implement other measures from the climate plan right now to create new, green jobs.


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