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Can the Coronavirus Response Cause Lasting Environmental Progress?

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The global response to the novel coronavirus has involved millions of people changing their behavior to comply with social distancing guidance and stay-at-home orders. While the cause for this isn’t something anyone would have chosen, one of the results appears to have been a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Whether or not this drop is long-lasting or sustainable is yet to be known. On Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, we spent a few minutes with SIS professor Simon Nicholson to discuss how this unexpected situation might play out for the planet.

Q: We keep reading about how emissions are lower due to actions taken in response to the coronavirus. What types of emissions are lower right now, and why?

The emissions we're interested in are those of greenhouse gases that lead to climate change. The most important of these greenhouse gases is carbon dioxide, or CO2, because of the quantities in which it is produced by human activities and because of its long-lastingness in the atmosphere. Globally, CO2 emissions are down right now, and they're down by a lot. Analysis by CarbonBrief suggests that CO2 emissions in 2020 will be down around 5.5 percent from 2019 emissions. This is because the widespread stay-at-home orders are reducing travel, slowing heavy industry, and stifling consumption.

Q: Do you think this reduction in emissions will be something that lasts, or will there be a bounce-back effect in which industry and individuals both try to make up for lost time in production, activity, and travel?

Well, we're seeing enormous pressure for everything to just get back to the way it was. There's certainly precedent for a rebound effect. The Great Recession in 2009 pushed global CO2 emissions down by around one percent. The next year, emissions were up five percent, as stimulus money being pumped by governments into the global economy drove a big increase in consumption.

At the same time, the kinds of economic and social impacts caused by the coronavirus are unlike anything we've seen before. The transition from stay-at-home to what comes next will be long, stuttering, and uneven. Even if people and businesses are clamoring to make up for lost time, the virus may make a quick return to old ways of doing things difficult or impossible.

Q: One thing that is striking about the behavioral changes we are seeing is that although they are institutionally mandated, by government stay-at-home orders and businesses instructing employees to telework, ultimately the actions themselves are individual actions, taken by millions of people simultaneously. Are there lessons we can learn about individual versus corporate action that we can transfer to combating climate change going forward?

I think we're seeing that big changes in the ways we live together are possible. However, we should be a little wary of drawing direct parallels between the coronavirus and climate change. The coronavirus is an immediate, terrifying threat. In response, billions of people are interacting with one another and the world in profoundly different ways, and trillions of dollars have been mobilized. Climate change is a different kind of challenge. Climate change is a slow-moving, abstract thing. It's easy to ignore in a day-to-day kind of way.

Responding to climate change asks far more of us, collectively, than does the coronavirus. Climate change demands deeper and enduring shifts in the ways in which societies are structured, economies directed, and politics conducted. But generating sufficient action in response to an abstract threat has proved difficult.

That said, the current moment does remind us of the importance of governments when it comes to the generation of coordinated action. Large-scale change can certainly come from a cultural shift driven by a slow-burning-but-catching-on-fire set of civil society actions—think of the push to legalize same-sex marriage, for instance. But turning the whole of economy and society on a dime is something that requires a wielding of the powers that reside in the offices and institutions that make up our governments.

Q: Nothing can make up for the loss of life we’re experiencing right now, nor the trauma suffered by our health care workers and other essential workers as they’ve soldiered through this crisis. But is there a way to honor those lives and service by leveraging this crisis to create a sustainable environmental response to climate change?

It's hard to reach for light when things look so dark. I appreciate the question, though. It's a reminder that there will be a time after the coronavirus and that it's important to think now about what that time should look like. If we're collectively to cultivate environmental positives out of the coronavirus moment, two things will be needed: first, a directing of stimulus dollars towards a new, post-fossil fuel economy rather than to a retrenchment of the way things were; and second, hanging onto the good things that come from lower levels of consumption and mobility.