24 Mar 2020

How the climate is benefiting from Covid-19

7:22 pm on 24 March 2020

As the coronavirus pandemic sends countries - including New Zealand - into lockdown, there's evidence emerging that the world's climate is dramatically benefiting.

Columbus Drive is seen empty in downtown Chicago, Illinois, on March 21, 2020.

Columbus Drive is seen empty in downtown Chicago, Illinois, on March 21, 2020. Photo: AFP

At the weekend, the European Space Agency released a new video that showed air pollution over China declining, while similar reductions in emissions have already been noticed over Europe.

"This experience shows how quickly and decisively governments and people can act in a time of crisis," said Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson.

"But it's important to note that it's happening for the wrong reasons - even if we're getting a glimpse into a world with reduced pollution."

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Climate scientists, including James Renwick at Victoria University of Wellington, are paying close attention to emission levels while the global economy grinds to a halt.

Weather and climate scientist, Professor James Renwick

Weather and climate scientist, Professor James Renwick Photo: supplied

"We are hopeful there will be a reduction in carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions this year, which certainly seems to be happening already," he said.

"It's hard to say how significant the impact will be, but it could be. We're at the beginning of a crucial decade and these next 10 years, as shown by the United Nations goals, are when we really need to see emissions reducing."

There are other examples around the world showing immediate improvements to the climate. In Venice, the canal water has already begun to clear up, while in some major cities, there's been a noticeable increase in wildlife.

"People are starting to put two and two together - as this pandemic exposes where our society is most vulnerable," said Larsson.

Climate scientist Andy Reisinger is a little less optimistic, despite being fascinated by what he describes as an "experiment" forced upon the world.

"[The pandemic] will result in a short term dent in emissions, but even so, emissions will still be created, rather than anything being taken away. This is a temporary reduction in the growth rate of climate change," he said.

Nevertheless, Larrson said people are swiftly finding new ways of living and interacting, such as using technology to hold meetings, rather than travelling around the world.

"It will be interesting to see if this type of behaviour can be sustained."

And this will be key, Renwick said.

"There is the risk that after this we just return to business as usual, which is essentially what happened after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008," he said.

"When you look at how emissions have tracked over time, you do see a blip downwards for a year or so, but then everything came roaring back and emissions have substantially grown in the past decade."

He said once the risk of the virus spreading significantly drops, governments around the world will want to boost the global economy as quickly as possible.

"But this should be seen as an opportunity - that when businesses and governments reconsider their investments - that they point them more towards renewable energy and a low carbon society."

Larsson said she hopes the pandemic will result in a renewed sense of trust in the expertise of scientists.

"Unfortunately, that trust has been eroded over time, partly as a result of deliberate PR campaigns by the fossil fuel industry," she said.

"But we're already seeing people and governments defer to scientists and I think that's something that we need to see more of with climate change."

Yet Reisinger said much would ultimately depend on who we elect.

"In New Zealand, we do seem to be led by a government that places its trust in science, yet in the US for example, that can't be said. I'm hopeful that we can keep getting scientists into the room and part of the decision-making process."

There have been calls in the past few days from the agricultural sector for the government to stall its freshwater reforms, yet Larsson said she hopes authorities around the world are wary of such lobbying.

"We're also already seeing polluting industries putting their hands up for taxpayer bailouts and lobbying for the removal of regulations - this also happened in 2008 and we missed the opportunity to transform our society for the better."

Renwick agreed, and said the dramatic changes being seen around the world should inspire people.

"It's been pretty amazing to see how rapid changes can have rapid effects," he said.

"Yes, we are polluting the environment, but we have the power to stop that, and we have the power to do so quickly."

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