How has the global lockdown resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic impacted climate change and the environment? Read on to find out!
By Isabela del Alcázar, BSc, MSc and PhD Global Head of Sustainability at IE University.
Pandemics are unique among disasters in that they attack the whole world at the same time – and in this manner, the new Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has shown itself to be flawless. As it marches around the globe, many of the countries with escalating outbreaks have looked to how the extreme lockdowns in China brought that country’s situation under control, and have chosen the same path by limiting movement within their own borders and imposing extensive social distancing among citizens. This method is the most effective in controlling the infection rate but might also, over time, effectively tank the world’s economy. It is not an easy decision for any government to close down businesses, but the longer-term economic effects of not doing so could be far worse.
Another unintended result of the outbreak in countries with stringent lockdowns is a noticeable drop in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. For example, in China, greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 25 percent since the crisis began, coal consumption in power plants has dropped 36 percent, and oil refining capacity has been lowered by 34 percent. The quality of breathing air has significantly improved while people are, paradoxically, wearing masks. Regrettably, these environmental benefits in China are expected to disappear with the reopening of factories in the Hubei province.
Spain’s production of energy from renewable sources (wind, solar power, and biomass) plays an important part in the country’s economic model. Spain is the sixth-largest energy consumer in Europe and has virtually no domestic production of liquid fuels or natural gas. Due to lockdown, a near-term decline in power demand is expected. Extended capacity will halt for weeks and prices will eventually collapse, damping the economic system even further. Nevertheless, consumers will be happy that electricity bills will be significantly reduced.
The Spanish government was pursuing energy and climate-change actions before the outbreak (for example, incentivizing self-production of solar power with lower property taxes for homes) but now that energy prices are expected to hit rock-bottom, the payback period of these investments will lengthen significantly. It is likely that this transition to self-produced renewable energy will now decelerate.
We tend to think of climate change as a slow and steady process, following a fairly predictable, even manageable path. That is a mistake. In fact, the result of continuously heating our planet could very well be an ongoing, accelerating series of disasters –disasters that eventually lead us to the point of no return.