COVID-19 and The Much-Needed Climate Change Break

Could there be an environmental silver lining to all this?

COVID-19 has disturbed the lives of many worldwide and has made everyday living an almost constant struggle. However, social distancing during the middle of a pandemic does come with some benefits, that is, in regards to the environment. Many events occur during pandemics: business closures, travel restrictions, working, and learning from home. However, these safety precautions for COVID-19 have caused economic activity and fossil fuel consumption to decrease in many nations around the globe. Furthermore, there has been a massive drop in greenhouse emissions during the year 2020 due to the shifts in behavior caused by COVID-19. Thus, staying socially distant during the pandemic is effectively keeping citizens safe and reducing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

Economic shocks resulting from a pandemic have little effect on gas emissions in the long run. However, seeing substantial reductions in gas emissions (even if relatively temporary) heavily encourages nations to invest towards climate change prevention. This is where the Paris Agreement comes into play. The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change that exists within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It was adopted in December of 2015 at the Conference of the Parties in Paris and entered into force on November 4th, 2016. The EU and 190 states have ratified or acceded to the agreement, including China and India. The goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (compared to pre-industrial levels). Additionally, to achieve this long-term temperature goal, countries have set peak limits on their greenhouse gas emissions to establish a climate-neutral world by mid-century.

Recently, two researchers from the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change completed a study on the pandemic’s long-term effect on economic activity and energy use until 2035. The study is featured on the MIT News website and it includes two models: one that predicts economic recession and recovery post-COVID-19 and one that predicts economic growth had COVID-19 not occurred. Both models of this study were made under the assumption that a return to pre-pandemic levels of employment would take place by 2035. According to the study, COVID-19 creates a sharp decline in the gross domestic product (GDP) across the globe with a reduction of 8.2% in 2020. However, by the year 2035, this deficit diminishes to a 2% reduction on average. In regards to environmental effects, these lower GDP numbers will result in a 3.4% reduction in annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 but only a 1% reduction in the year 2030.

The results, shown in Figure 1, show how COVID-19 reduces global GDP through 2035. As shown, there is a noticeable decline in 2020 due to a combined effect of elevated job uncertainty and ongoing social distancing behaviour (an example being how brick-and-mortar businesses are getting less revenue). However, 2020’s decline in GDP is estimated to recover almost completely to pre-COVID-19 levels by the year 2035 as restrictions on social activity imposed in 2020 are eased. This trend is based on an economic model used in a pre-pandemic assessment. Furthermore, this figure was constructed from the CBO’s (Congressional Budget Office) estimate of the resulting GDP impact for the U.S. during the year 2020 (which proved to be accurate). To estimate the global economic impact it was assumed that the pandemic caused the same total productivity shock all across the world (meaning it is under the assumption that the COVID-19 pandemic affected every nation in a similar manner).

Figure 2 shows the effect of the lower GDP (Figure 1) on emissions. Similar to GDP, a noticeable decline in greenhouse gas emissions occurs in 2020. The pandemic, along with national responses to mediate climate change in general, lowered 2020 global emissions by 3.4 percent, and 2025 shows a difference of about 2% compared to pre-pandemic conditions. However, by the year 2030 annual emissions are reduced by only 1% and the effect is even smaller in 2035. The study’s lead author, John Reilly, stated that “Our projections of global economic activity with and without the pandemic show only a small impact of COVID-19 on emissions in 2030 and beyond.” This indicates that unless action is taken by the nations who have acceded to the Paris Agreement, we can expect relatively little to no change in emissions in the long run.

Although the authors of this study expect greenhouse emissions to reduce by the amount shown in the model (3.4 percent), the pandemic may result in various structural changes in the economy, such as less air travel, less commuting, and less commercial activity at brick-and-mortar shops, which could reduce emissions even further. Additionally, Reilly stated that “while pandemic-induced economic shocks will likely have a little direct effect on long-term emissions, they may well have a significant indirect effect on the level of investment that nations are willing to commit to meet or beat their Paris emissions targets.” This statement is referencing the study and how it shows that the reduced economic activity resulting from COVID-19 lowers the cost of meeting the targets discussed in the Paris Agreement. Therefore, the lack of activity during the midst of a pandemic has made the United Nations’ commitment to climate change more feasible and politically palatable.

Although there has been a massive drop in greenhouse emissions during the year 2020, this is largely due to the shifts in behavior caused by COVID-19, which will not change the planet’s warming trajectory in the long run. However, the large-scale economic recovery plans offer an opportunity to enact climate change policies such as investing in low-carbon technologies. This (combined with enforcement of climate-friendly action) could help reach the goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius as discussed in the Paris Agreement. However, further commitment from countries worldwide is needed.

Alexander Shepard is a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon University studying Chemistry with a minor in Business Administration. Outside of the laboratory, he enjoys video editing, animating, exercising, and engaging in idea centered discussions with his friends. His academic interests include pharmaceuticals and the implications of emerging technologies in the business sector.

The Triple Helix at Carnegie Mellon University promotes the interdisciplinary nature of public policy, science, technology, and society.