16 Mar 2020

Covid-19: Climate change emissions drop as travel bans hit

From Checkpoint, 6:20 pm on 16 March 2020

As economies recoil in the face of COVID-19, carbon emissions are shrinking - but environmentalists say it'll likely be temporary.

Airports are emptying out and factories are grinding to a halt.

Whole communities are in quarantine and countries across the world are shutting their borders.

The effects of Covid-19 are being felt across the planet - and in its environment.

As economies around the world recoil in the face of the outbreak, their carbon emissions are also shrinking.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change lead author Professor Alistair Woodward said global emissions were dropping - for now.

"People are not moving around so much, trade has dropped, international travel has dropped, production has fallen, so I'm sure that there will be a temporary drop."

The drop in emissions is most evident in China, where much of the country is in lockdown.

Figures from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air show emissions have dropped by 25 percent.

Just how much New Zealand's emissions will be cut remains to be seen, but Climate Change Minister James Shaw said it would be what happens when the economies grind back into gear that would matter the most.

"This is already a reduction in tourism, for example, so obviously that leads to a temporary drop in emissions as well.

"Any effect is only going to be temporary, so we need to stay focused on permanent solutions."

He stressed that New Zealand needed to focus on cutting emissions in ways that weren't connected to economic slowdowns.

"What you want to do is reduce your emissions by decoupling economic development from growing emissions."

Victoria University director of environmental studies Professor Ralph Chapman said the very swift international response to Covid-19 had been in stark contrast to how governments responded to climate change.

"I don't want to be alarmist but there's the potential for climate change to generate hundreds of millions of deaths - and that is a different order of magnitude, a much bigger scale than the impact of Covid.

"I'm not saying that the pandemic here is trivial - it's not - but climate change will start to have an enormous impact as we go forward."

He said there were already estimates that tens of thousands of people were dying as a result of climate change - much more than from Covid-19.

But Greenpeace's Amanda Larsson said the drastic international measures being taken showed that where there is a will, there's a way.

"Climate change deniers love to perpetuate the myth that it's too hard or inconvenient to change the status-quo, but what we're seeing is both people and governments can adapt quickly in a time of crisis."

Shaw said climate change and Covid-19 were both crises - but were very different in their nature and required different responses.

As the government prepares economic packages to ease the impact of Covid-19 on New Zealanders, Shaw said they would be bearing carbon emissions in mind, so the current drop wasn't just a temporary measure.