Can global lockdowns help save the Earth? COVID-19 climate questions answered

12-min read • These are our best answers to eight most frequently asked questions surrounding COVID-19 and the climate.

the climate of covid-19 questions and answers

Has there ever been a worse time for information? Since the turn of the year, news developments and health advisories are being rolled out faster than on an assembly line, and fake news has inundated social media platforms and newsrooms alike. Yet the speed and accuracy of these information can essentially make the difference between life and death, counting in the thousands.

But as we have since begun to understand and cope with the situation better, I have picked out to answer, eight top questions revolving around the two greatest threats to our very survival as a species: the COVID-19 and climate crises.

Is nature returning during the COVID-19 pandemic?

TLDR: No—while nature has taken the opportunity to occupy bits of the space we have vacated in this time, they’ll probably be pushed out again as human activity resumes.

As people have largely retreated into their homes, there has been some signs that Mother Nature has taken gentle steps upon the concrete worlds we’ve built on her land.

The air has cleared up. The sky is blue again. Sheep and goats have trotted into Welsh towns. Coyotes have peered their heads out in San Francisco. Plants and flowers are teeming as pruning and trimming are far from being deemed essential services. With the waters clearer without litter and fuel from boat cruises, ducks and crabs have reappeared in the Venetian canals.

But as you must have heard by now, there are no swans or dolphins in Venice, nor drunken elephants sleeping blissfully in a Yunnan tea garden.

As much as we want to believe that there is at least one good thing that came out of this crisis, nature’s recovery is not it.

As the economy toils, authorities around the world have cut the budgets for environmental services and wildlife protection and conservation. Poachers may seize the opportunity to illegally capture and sell prized animals and parts of their bodies.

On a broader time scale, in the decades that have passed since we as a species started taking over every landmass in our colonisation and civilisation—to the extent that some have labelled this the Anthropocene (the ‘age of humans’)—we have wrought massive damage upon the natural world, which would take years and years of harmonious living to reverse.

As things are looking, however, it’s probable that animals will be driven out and greenery will be nipped again as people start returning to the streets.

For now, wildlife in urban environments may imbue a sense of wonder and healing in us, but on the flip side, human encroachment on natural habitats is the primary reason why we are having to face this pandemic in the first place.

Did the virus really come from pangolins and bats?

TLDR: The virus very likely came from bats, but most other findings about its origin remain inconclusive.

Most versions of stories about the coronavirus’s origins allege that it came from a wet market in Wuhan, where live animals are traded. The market was very quickly shut down and cleaned up, making it difficult to prove in either direction.

Make of it what you will, but it’s noteworthy that the first known case of human infection did not have direct exposure to the market. Instead, the early genome frequencies point towards other parts of China, most notably Guangdong.

Another popular theory, backed by US president Donald Trump, suggest that the virus may have been artificially created in a lab in Wuhan. While evidence for that is weak at best, there is a possibility that COVID-19 may have escaped in a lab in Wuhan that studies viruses and diseases, including those carried by animals.

Regardless of where exactly the virus was first transmitted to humans, there is near-consensus from the scientific community that COVID-19 originated naturally from bats, as have other strains of coronaviruses.

It is also believed that before the virus made its way to humans, it resided in an intermediary animal host, of which the pangolin was raised as a potential candidate.

Part of the reason why there are so many questions and so few answers surrounding its origins is that China—the ground zero of the virus—remains tight-lipped, denying access from external researchers, including the World Health Organisation, to be involved in the investigation of the virus.

Nevertheless, we can assume with high confidence that COVID-19 emerged from nature, and the subsequent pandemic was a result of close contact between humans and animals.

Is the virus how the Earth is reclaiming itself from humans?

TLDR: No—such viruses are naturally occurring, and are not the Earth’s way of trying to protect itself from the destruction caused by us as a species.

An unorthodox idea that was making rounds in the Internet is that “we are the virus” to the Earth, and COVID-19 is its response to us as a cure.

Well, I wouldn’t assume whether the Earth has defence mechanisms in place to protect itself against a highly invasive and destructive species like us, but there are logical explanations behind how the virus came about.

Since the beginning of life, many animal species carry pathogens like bacteria and viruses, which they have adapted to nullify through evolution. But when transferred to a new host species, these pathogens may take on a different life, possibly mutating into new strains.

Human pressures on the natural world, such as poaching, deforestation, pollution and the climate crisis, have forced wildlife out of their natural habitats, into greater and more frequent exposure with other animals and humans.

As with every living space that has to be shared, conflict will inevitably arise—just ask the people whom you’re now cooped up with at home. With such close contact, the species barrier of zoonotic diseases start to be broken down. The reservoirs of infection are then more likely to grow, creating a spillover effect across species and populations.

In fact, the United Nations Environment Programme states that 75% of new infectious diseases come from animals, including SARS (2002), H1N1 swine flu (2009), MERS (2012), Ebola (2014) and Zika virus (2015). This is not the first pandemic resulting from one.

Since the virus was transmitted to humans by animals, why should we still protect wildlife?

TLDR: Wildlife, which help to maintain natural systems, are essential to our own survival as a species.

Nor will it be the last. Especially if we don’t fix our fundamental faults that are causing such animal-borne infectious diseases to occur.

To the uninformed, the threats posed by these diseases may create in them a fear of wildlife. They may think, shouldn’t we prevent wild animals from coming into our vicinity and cull those that slip through? After all, no wild animals mean no zoonotic diseases right?

That is an oversimplified solution that will not work, for an equally simple reason.

As much as we live almost our entire lives in man-made cities walled off from natural landscapes, do not fall for the illusion—our livelihood and even survival are still highly dependent on the Earth and its natural resources. Environmental sustainability issues are becoming more apparent, precisely because our population growth and increasing consumption require more resources than the Earth can renew.

Ecosystems and the webs of relationships between their inhabitants have been carefully moulded—over millions of years of evolution—to a fine, stable equilibrium. By exterminating populations of other species, even ones as seemingly as insignificant as bats and insects, it will set off a butterfly effect (do you see the analogy behind the term?) that will topple natural systems. Pollination of plants, supply of freshwater, and weather and even climate patterns may change for the worse.

There’s misapprehension among scientists and the public that natural ecosystems are the source of threats to ourselves. It’s a mistake. Nature poses threats, it is true, but it’s human activities that do the real damage. The health risks in a natural environment can be made much worse when we interfere with it.

—Dr. Richard Ostfeld, senior scientist, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies

The growing calls for a global ban on wildlife markets and trading may be a step in the right direction, albeit an extreme one. Not only do such activity bring animals of varying species and sources into close proximity, live animals and parts of freshly-slaughtered ones are sometimes sold at the same place, in subpar conditions.

However, many rural communities depend on wild animals for food and livelihood, so rather than an outright ban, education and precautionary measures in health and hygiene may be the better move.

Are carbon emissions falling due to our measures against the coronavirus?

TLDR: The rate of carbon emissions are falling, but the total volume that we are putting into our atmosphere continues to rise.

In the first quarter of 2020, it is estimated that global emissions from burning of fossil fuels and cement production were fell by 8.6 percent compared to 2019 levels, amounting to 1,048 million tonnes less of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. At its peak reduction, on 7 April, daily global carbon emissions fell by 17 percent—levels last seen in 2006.

Depending on the extent and duration of lockdowns around the world, annual global emissions in 2020 are projected to fall between 4 percent (global lockdowns lifted in June) and 8 percent (lockdowns persist for the rest of the year).

As countries have begun to ease their lockdown measures, carbon emissions are already showing signs of rebounding. Daily global carbon emissions are down only 5 percent as of June.

Notably, annual global emissions need to decline by 7.6 percent every year—for the next ten years—if we were to limit global warming under the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement. This means that if we don’t overhaul our habits and systems, each of us has to continue locking ourselves at home until 2030.

In spite of how absurd that sounds, that is still a 0.5°C increase in global average temperature in those ten hypothetical years. Make no mistake, a 17 percent fall in carbon emissions still means that we are releasing carbon dioxide equivalent to 83 percent of what we did last year.

graph of trends in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration
Beyond seasonal fluctuations, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has continued to climb. | Source: UN Environment Program

In May 2020, on the back of the reduced carbon emissions due to COVID-19, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere reached 417.1 parts per million, the highest in human history, and probably even the past 3 million years.

Although this is likely to lead to the largest cut in emissions since World War II, it will make barely a dent in the ongoing build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s like we’re filling a bath and have turned down the tap slightly, but not turned it off—the water is still rising, just not as fast. To stop the bath overflowing, we need to turn the tap off.”

—Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impacts Research, Met Office Hadley Centre

We are well running out of our carbon budget. To stop the bleed, we as a species need to achieve net-zero emissions—or carbon neutrality—tallied over all that we produce and consume. To heal, we need to start taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

What are the reasons carbon emissions are falling?

TLDR: Declines are primarily coming from transport and industry—with empty roads, grounded planes and shuttered factories.

This is a time during which the word unprecedented is being bandied around at an unprecedented rate, but my point is—with such drastic measures being put in place around the world to limit how people live, work and play, carbon emissions have fallen for a great number of reasons.

With roads virtually clear of traffic, surface transportation leads the way in emission reductions. There’s a multiplier effect in this too, as cars run more efficiently when they’re not stuck in a jam.

Aviation, a notorious source of carbon emissions, took a massive hit as, at the early stages of the outbreak, travellers rushed to cancel their flights. Many flights have now been grounded for good, except a few that are taking to the skies with a fraction of the seats filled.

These have led to an annihilation of demand for oil, to the extent that oil prices at one point plunged to negative figures—investors running out of storage had to pay buyers to have the barrels taken away.

Industrial activities have also fallen off the cliff, as coal use and production of materials like steel and cement took a backseat. Energy and power generation were also on the decline, but was partially offset by the increase in residential heating and cooling as people now spend much longer hours at home.

Manufacturing and shipping have been slow to fall. Reductions in plastics used in auto manufacturing are met by a rise in plastics used for food packaging. The movement and delivery of goods locally and globally have remained robust.

Many of these reasons, and indeed our world economy, are closely linked to the burning of fossil fuels. If past major world events are indicators to go by, these will bounce back very quickly.

Will emissions climb right back up when “normal” resumes?

TLDR: Such a scenario looks very likely, particularly as governments look to fossil fuels to kick economies back into gear, but there have been movements to make some changes.

Very quickly may be on an even shorter timeframe than you might imagine, as the public health crisis and economic troubles knock climate concerns further down the minds of policymakers.

Many of the top polluting countries are already making plans to inject (fossil) fuel into the engine that is their economy to jumpstart it—under cover of the media distraction afforded by COVID-19 (and the Black Lives Matter protests).

Financing of over $500 billion will be committed to carbon-intensive industries globally, including bailouts to airlines and aviation companies. These do not come with conditions to control emissions output or develop cleaner, more sustainable ways of doing business.

China, after exiting its lockdown, has already generated air pollution higher than last year’s levels. The culprit is likely to be coal-fired power plants, which the country has shown the tendency of going to for economic recovery.

The Trump administration finally got its way in rolling back fuel efficiency standards established during Obama’s presidency. The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency has also relaxed enforcement and will not penalise companies that fail to comply with federal monitoring or reporting requirements, if they could attribute it to the pandemic.

Talks to revive the COP26 climate change conference—originally due to be held in November 2020 but postponed one year because of the pandemic—did not bear fruit, either.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom—or smog and dirty energy, in this case.

Many around the world now find the clearer skies and our ability to adapt to a new normal as proof that we can overcome the monumental task of reversing the damage we have done to the environment.

How can our economies have a green recovery from the virus?

TLDR: We need to actively the decoupling between economic activity and carbon emissions, and there’s no better opportunity to do so than now.

This hiatus in the life and work that we are so used to is the perfect wake-up call for us to study and analyse our excesses, and how we could chart a new course as we learn and move on from the COVID-19 crisis. After all that has happened, how can we possibly still deny ourselves the fact that driving and flying to face-to-face meetings are not at all necessary?

The drop in emissions is global and unprecedented. Air pollution has plunged in most areas. The virus provides a glimpse of just how quickly we could clean our air with renewables. [But] I refuse to celebrate a drop in emissions driven by tens of millions of people losing their jobs. We need systemic change in our energy infrastructure, or emissions will roar back later.

—Rob Jackson, chair of the Global Carbon Project

Why can’t we adopt the same speed and wide-ranging extent in our collective response to the climate crisis, as we are doing towards the outbreak?

It is the time for policymakers to hit the reset button—to henceforth untether our economy from carbon emissions. A good new start would be to curb unemployment with green jobs, and drive consumption and investment through sustainable businesses.

In April, Austria became the eighth European Union nation to end the burning of coal. In a similar vein, British oil giant BP has also announced that it will write off up to $17.5 billion from the value of its assets, on the back of expectations that COVID-19 will produce a long-term push on the global energy transition away from fossil fuels.

City planners are revisiting bicycle lanes, as many people have expressed heightened willingness to cycle as a means of transport, even when they do return to offices and malls.

In the business world, movements towards offering permanent work-from-home arrangements—led by tech companies like Twitter and Slack—may lead to an upheaval of urban infrastructure and land development into decentralisation. People may no longer need to move from the country into the city in pursuit of less laborious, higher-paying desk jobs.

With hope, timing and circumstance aligned, the only factor missing from the equation is will. We have the perfect opportunity to, quite literally, clean up our act on the climate crisis—only if we want to.

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