Crisis and Control: Covid-19 and its Impact on Climate Change


Through the Sense and Sustainability column, Jess McDonald sheds some light on the complexities of climate change and what it means for the world around us. From lessons on sustainable living to informative insights on emissions and renewable energy, she’ll keep us all up to date on this increasingly hot topic.


Writing here about the massive impact of the Covid-19 Crisis seems redundant. You have likely been inundated with news stories and statistics about lives lost and changed forever, and have no doubt experienced first hand the impact of the virus on society. It also seems incredibly pessimistic to now bring up another crisis: Climate Change. Yet the overhaul of normality has triggered an unparalleled decline in carbon emissions, prompting scientists and policy-makers across the world to consider to what extent we can use data from one crisis to combat another. 


This year was projected to see a further 1% increase in global carbon dioxide emissions from 2019, in line with the pattern of the past few decades. Instead, as recent data from the Nature Climate Change Journal exhibits, the 2020 average is actually set to display a 5% decrease. This isn’t entirely surprising, given that in early April around 89% of global emissions were under some sort of restriction, as governments sought to stop the spread of Covid-19. If you add to this the significant drop in air travel and car usage, and it is clear to see how lockdown measures have contributed directly to this massive shift in carbon output. But even these extreme changes are not enough to halt a global temperature rise above the international goal of 1.5 degrees celsius. For that, the emissions would have to be at a 7.6% deficit every year for the next decade. 


So what does this all mean for moving forward with the fight against climate change post-pandemic? While the data is currently very tentative—we won’t know for certain the impact the pandemic has had on carbon emissions until much later in the year—it definitely provides an essential insight. A surface analysis might be that there is no way to achieve the necessary carbon deficit without a complete overhaul of society and the way we live. And because this is never going to happen, we’re all doomed. Right? This is definitely a bleak outlook, and certainly not what anyone wants to hear when things already feel they have taken a turn for the worse. 


Instead, I think we need to take from this some positives. Fundamentally, it is possible to reduce emissions. Quite obviously the measures taken in these past few months aren’t sustainable in the long term, but they do demonstrate how equivalent swaps and improvements could make a similar, if not more impactful difference. Reductions in air traffic and the electrification of road vehicles, for instance, could potentially reduce emissions and air pollution to a similar extent. The pedestrianisation of large city centres like London could also encourage less use of cars in general. The expansion of renewable energy would also promote a faster transition away from fossil fuels. It is also important to consider that the emission-producers inhibited by the coronavirus pandemic do not present the full picture. Agriculture and textile production have not been impacted to as great a degree as aviation for instance, but still account for a substantial amount of carbon emitted.


Perhaps this is just an echo of what we already know: change needs to happen and it needs to be big. While individual action is and remains to be an important factor in combating climate change, evidently crucial improvements have to happen from above. It’s corporations and entire industries that will really sway the future of greenhouse emissions and the climate struggle. The pandemic has shown that when faced with an immediate crisis, governments can and will act to protect the lives of the population (though how effectively this is done is definitely for another writer to examine). Climate change might seem like a distant worry, abstract from the immediacy of today’s problems, but it is a crisis that grows bigger and more devastating with every day action is limited. The earlier we act, and with more conviction, the more damage is prevented in the long term. 


It is easy to feel hopeless when the stability of the world we live in is being shaken to its core in real time, and worse, when one disaster only seems to lead onto another. In these trying times, we must attempt to learn from one crisis to mitigate the damage of another. We must believe that things can and will get better, through the lessons we learn and the changes we make. We need each other, and the world needs us.


Jess McDonald is a second year student at QMUL, studying history. Aside from her reflections on the climate crisis, she also has a hidden love for Hollywood’s Golden Age of cinema.


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