Climate Change and Coronavirus: now and the future

Dr Martin J Hodson

Writing in April 2020 it is difficult to see how Earth Day 2020 on April 22nd will register even a small blip in the media that are now focussed on a global pandemic. Quite rightly, governments have switched all of their focus to dealing with the virus, and the Earth Day focus for 2020 on climate action is unlikely to gain much interest. But in the medium to longer-term, climate change remains a big threat.

Worrying data have continued to come in over the last year concerning climate change. Globally, 2019 was the second warmest in recorded history after 2016. January 2020 was the warmest January on record, and February 2020 was the second warmest February. In 2019 ocean heat content reached another peak. There have been a series of climate change-related weather events over the last year: wildfires in California, the Amazon and Australia; floods in East Africa, India, and the United Kingdom; and the fourth-strongest hurricane season on record in the Atlantic. In many of these cases, scientists were able to attribute at least part of the effects to human-induced climate change.

Throughout 2019 and the early part of 2020 it looked like climate change was finally getting some traction as an issue with the general public. The school climate strikes, led by Swedish teenage activist, Greta Thunberg, were having a huge impact. Groups like Extinction Rebellion courted controversy, but undoubtedly heightened interest in the environment.

Politicians in many parts of the world began to take notice. On May 1st 2019 the United Kingdom government declared an environment and climate emergency. Other governments followed in the same year, including Ireland (May 9th), Canada (June 17th), Argentina (July 17th) and Bangladesh (November 13th). On November 28th the European Union, representing 27 states, declared a climate emergency. Oxford Dictionaries made “climate emergency” their Word of the Year in November 2019.

At the beginning of 2020, there was considerable optimism that governments might begin to take real actions to curb carbon emissions. Many eyes were focussed on the United Nations climate change meeting scheduled for November 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland (COP26). That would be five years on from the Paris Agreement, and governments were busy submitting their revised plans for carbon emissions cuts.

But there was a cloud on the horizon, coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19). Starting in Wuhan, China, at first it looked like it might be contained there. It was undoubtedly a serious disease, and the lockdown there caused a 25% reduction in Chinese carbon emissions. In February 2020 the disease was spreading, with Italy and Iran being particularly badly affected. In March 2020 the outbreak became a pandemic with many countries now badly affected including France, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. The China lockdown seemed to work, and by early April even restrictions in Wuhan were being relieved. Chinese carbon emissions rapidly returned to their pre-lockdown levels.

As a result of the pandemic a whole series of sporting, cultural and political events have been cancelled or postponed, including COP26 in Glasgow. At the time of writing, there is no certainty when COP26 will be rescheduled in 2021. The 6th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientific basis on which action on climate change is taken, was due to start being released in 2021 and to be completed in 2022, but this may also have some delay now.

So where do we stand? Climate change and the environment seem to be largely off the agenda, even in countries which were previously showing some progress. But there is a growing recognition that the pandemic itself is a result of our dreadful treatment of the environment. The virus almost certainly came out of wild animal markets in China where the conditions for the animals were appalling. Some politicians are beginning to make the links and are calling for a “green recovery” after the pandemic.

We simply cannot keep living the way that we have, and if we do then climate change and a host of other environmental problems will make our life on Earth very miserable. But there is a better way. Geoffrey Lean, the veteran environmental journalist, puts it very well, “The economy, as Covid-19 has made painfully clear, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, dependent on healthy systems. And green investment is increasingly recognised as the best route to prosperity.” (Daily Mail, 7 April 2020).

So on Earth Day 2020, spend just a little time looking to the future beyond the pandemic. Think about how we might avoid returning to “business as usual” and how we might help bring about a just and green recovery which benefits both humanity and the rest of God’s wonderful creation.

Dr Martin J. Hodson

JRI Operations Director

This article was commissioned by for Earth Day 2020 on April 22 and is reproduced with their permission.

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay