The Pandemic Won’t Stop Climate Chaos — That Will Require Changing Our Economic System

The COVID-19 lockdown has resulted in a drastic short-term fall in carbon emissions. Without structural change, however, we’re still on a disastrous trajectory. To avoid calamity, we need to transform our economic system.

An aerial view shows an empty Interstate 280 on March 26, 2020 leading into San Francisco, California. With millions of residents under order to shelter in place due to the coronavirus outbreak, few cars are on the roads. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The first peer-reviewed analysis of COVID-19’s impact on global carbon emissions has now been published. Its findings are startling: in April, global emissions fell by an unprecedented 17 percent, with several individual countries — including France, New Zealand, and the UK — experiencing considerably higher cuts in the range of 30–40 percent.

The study suggests that emissions for 2020 could be up to 7.5 percent lower than in 2019, as lockdown rules around the world continue to shift and the global economy slides into a severe recession, with the IMF projecting real year-on-year global GDP growth of -3 percent.

By comparison, after the 2008 financial crisis, year-on-year growth dropped by just -0.1 percent, and emissions from fossil fuels fell by 1.3 percent as a consequence — nearly six times less than projections for this year. Some scientists have even suggested that the pandemic could shift peak global carbon emissions forward, so that we may never again see annual emissions as high as they were in 2019.

Silver Lining or Mirage?

Some have described this collapse in carbon emissions as the pandemic’s “bright spot”; for others, it is a harbinger of the dystopian future supposedly called for by degrowth advocates and other climate activists. In my view, neither of these interpretations are accurate, but more important, this is the wrong way to frame the debate.

The fact that the global response to COVID-19 precipitated a 17 percent reduction in emissions over the course of a single month offers proof of the extent to which we are capable of rapid shifts in emissions. It is also a sobering reminder of the scale of transformation required to do so. However, to fixate solely on the link between lockdown measures and carbon emissions is to obscure the crucial conversation we need to have about the relationship between COVID-19 and the climate crisis.

The allure of a carbon silver lining amid so much chaos and suffering is strong, particularly as the world emerges from lockdown and finds itself confronting an accelerating climate crisis and a global recession. But while a rapid change of this scale is remarkable, it’s hardly cause for celebration.

To put things in perspective, April’s 17 percent drop only brings us back to the emissions levels in 2006. Moreover, the upper limit of the year-on-year estimated decrease in emissions would leave us short of the 7.6 percent annual cut that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests is necessary — every year for the next decade — if we are to have a fighting chance of limiting the planet’s warming to 1.5ºC, the target that experts widely acknowledge to be vital for mitigating the worst impacts of climate change.

Turning off the Tap

Most important, while annual global emissions must decrease urgently and quickly, even a year-on-year change of this scale has virtually no impact on the cumulative carbon in the atmosphere, the value relevant to global heating. To borrow an analogy from the climate scientist Dr Richard Betts: if we imagine the atmosphere as an enormous bathtub, what COVID-19 has done is turn down the tap — a bit. But even now, the water is still rising, and fast.

Ensuring that we continue to rapidly turn off the tap is the essential challenge as we bring much of the global population out of hibernation. As the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis demonstrated, economic rebounds — even if they are anemic — can cause a spike in emissions large enough to erase any momentary reductions.

More than a decade further on, with our remaining time to flatten the climate curve swiftly dwindling, the need for us to avoid this kind of rebound is even greater. The urgent task in the coming months is, therefore, to ensure that in rebuilding from COVID-19, we don’t reproduce and reinforce the structures that fueled soaring carbon emissions, unsustainable resource extraction, and inequality before the pandemic.

Though it may seem obvious, it bears repeating that this fall in emissions was neither planned nor purposeful but rather an incidental by-product of measures to protect public health. To achieve these cuts, the economy hasn’t yet been fundamentally changed. Certain parts of it have simply been suspended temporarily.

Indeed, while much of our daily routines have come to an abrupt halt, many of the core economic activities that dominate global emissions — fossil fuel power and heating, and intensive agriculture — have carried on with relatively modest disruption.

Two Visions

Beyond their impact on emissions, COVID-19 and the attendant lockdown measures have exposed and exacerbated deeply rooted vulnerabilities in our economic system: income inequality, mass economic insecurity, fragile supply chains, unjust and exploitative debtor-creditor relations, rentierism, and the escalating degradation of the natural world. It is the need to transform this system, rather than changes in the global emissions profile, that forms the key link between COVID-19 and the climate.

It has therefore been tentatively encouraging to see academics, journalists, activists, politicians, and even the editorial boards of the financial press coalescing around proposals for a post-pandemic green stimulus. However, there are two broad camps emerging among these voices, with critical divergences between them.

Members of the first camp imagine a “greening” of the system we already have in place. Their proposals envisage new incentives and regulations, scaled-up private investment, and carbon pricing. But they remain skeptical of a state that is emboldened to lead on decarbonization, fearing “dirigisme disguised as a helping hand,” to borrow the Economist’s recent description of France’s aviation bailout.

In contrast, the second camp calls for a more fundamental transformation — one that wholly reorients our economic priorities while embracing the state’s capacity to plan for and finance change of the scale and pace that is now required. Instead of decarbonizing the system we have now, this vision proposes a new economic consensus, whether that includes scaling up alternative models of ownership in place of private enclosure, using bailouts as leverage for transforming the corporate form, or vanquishing the dominance of finance.

It is on this ideological battlefield that the relationship between the pandemic and the climate crisis should be undertaken. We must recognize how the same structural weaknesses that made us vulnerable to this health crisis leave us exposed to the dangers of climate chaos while articulating a clear alternative future.

Changing Perspective

Global lockdown measures bear no resemblance to the climate movement’s vision of the future — neither does a protracted and painful economic depression. Rather, I would argue that the bulk of the movement’s demands share in the purposeful, planned reorientation of the economy toward justice, equality, and care; toward shared wealth in place of private excess; and toward a system in which all life, both human and nonhuman, can flourish within planetary bounds.

COVID-19 has shown us how far removed present-day conditions are from this vision. If the pandemic is to have any “bright spot,” then, it won’t be due to a dent in annual emissions. It will be the result of a renewed engagement with our collective priorities: health, security, mutual care, justice, clean air, green and public spaces, and collective well-being. The success of the project to build a radically decarbonized world will depend on how well we can harness this shift in public perspective.

The pandemic has proven that the question is not whether we are able to cut emissions at the pace we need — evidently we can. Rather, the question is what path we take to get there, and the shape that final destination assumes. Something much better than the status quo is within reach, but it is far from guaranteed.