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Complex Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic for Climate Mitigation

Monday, June 22, 2020

Michael P. Vandenbergh

Director, Climate Change Research Network, Co-director, Energy, Environment, and Land Use Program, Vanderbilt University

Margaret Badding

Margaret Badding

Research and Publications Intern, ELI

With the sweeping and difficult changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, including social distancing and an economic downturn with record-high unemployment, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have plummeted globally. Reductions in emissions for the year are projected to be between 4% and 7% globally and between 6.7% and 11% in the United States. Around the United States and the globe, air quality has improved and skies in many cities are clearer than ever. Despite these clear short-term environmental effects, the long-term impact of the pandemic on climate change mitigation remains unclear. Will the pandemic make decarbonization more difficult or present new opportunities to accelerate emissions reductions? Considering individual behavior, corporate signals, and the potential for green recovery, there are reasons for both pessimism and optimism.

One cause for concern is that public support for climate change mitigation efforts could decline, with economic and pandemic response issues taking precedence. Following the 2008 financial crisis, public concern over climate change decreased as the overall economic downturn progressed. Between 2008 and 2010, public awareness of climate change fell by 13 percentage points, with similar declines in the understanding of its anthropogenic causes. The economic downturn following the COVID-19 pandemic, in which over 45 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits, could similarly undermine support for climate mitigation. Fortunately, there are signs that the economic downturn won’t result in the same trends this time: a recent report indicates that public concern for climate change has remained relatively constant, with 66% of Americans saying they are at least “somewhat worried.” This may of course change as the effects of the pandemic continue to propagate through the economy over the next several months, however.

Another reason for pessimism is that the polarized public response to COVID-19 parallels the partisan divide in public opinion about climate change and mitigation. Whether or not Americans believe that the death count from the virus is under- or overreported depends largely on party affiliation, and the likelihood an individual will wear a mask publicly or engage in social distancing is similarly ideologically influenced. The concept of tribal epistemology, in which individuals’ worldviews are strongly influenced by their identification with a political group and its leaders and further distorted by increasingly polarized news sources and social media, presents challenges for climate change mitigation efforts. If the pandemic further intensifies the red-blue divide, it may impede the ability to build support for deep decarbonization.

Pandemic-related restrictions on mass transport also complicate these efforts. The CDC has recommended against taking mass transport and many employers have adopted policies discouraging employees from using mass transport. Not surprisingly, experts are raising concerns about increases in traffic jams as a result. Urban planners and climate mitigation advocates may need to find ways to reduce concerns about mass transport. The transition to electric vehicles may also need to be accelerated to decarbonize the transportation system in a time when public concern focuses on the pandemic.

Yet, there is also reason for optimism if we focus on the practical opportunities that the crisis presents for pursuing long-term emission reductions. At the household level, many people have adopted low-carbon behaviors in response to the pandemic, including increased remote work and less flying. The key is to convert short-term behavior change into long-term habits. In the short term, increased remote work has significantly reduced commuting-related emissions. A lasting shift in this area, which many companies and employees are seriously considering, could yield serious emissions benefits. It is estimated that about one-half of U.S. workers have a job compatible with remote work. According to one analysis, if workers with remote-work-compatible jobs did so just half of the time, GHG emissions would decrease by 54 million tons—the equivalent of taking almost 10 million cars off the road. Of course, it will be important for employers and advocacy groups to find ways to ensure that efficient household behaviors adopted during the pandemic become habits that can persist over time. Advocacy groups can be expected to attribute emissions from working at home to employers, and this may create incentives for companies to provide training and funding to enable employees to work at home with a small carbon footprint.

Additionally, air travel, which accounted for 2% of global emissions in 2019 and is one of the biggest contributors to individual carbon footprints, has decreased dramatically. In April, air passenger traffic in the United States was down by an astonishing 95 percent. Additional low-carbon behaviors brought about by the pandemic include reduced consumer spending and consumption, and increased recycling. These behavioral shifts, if converted into habits and expanded, could reduce the expected emissions rebound following the pandemic. Moreover, some environmental benefits such as improved air quality have been highly visible. An increased public appreciation for the connection between human action and environmental health may increase behavior change and policy support for long-term environmental protection.

Beyond the behavioral shifts, fiscal policy also offers a significant opportunity for a green recovery from COVID-19. An economic recovery plan that makes additional stimulus money conditional on reduced emissions could drive further decarbonization in parallel with an economic rebound. Investing in renewable energy, building retrofits, and new infrastructure that relies on clean technology would promote the creation of new jobs and industries and accelerate the transition to a decarbonized and sustainable future.

Within the private sector, promising signals have been sent in the form of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) commitments by institutional investors, lenders, insurers, and a wide range of companies. Prior to the pandemic, a growing understanding of the connection between sustainability and long-term economic prosperity had been taking place. Many corporations committed to voluntary agreements and standards, crafting ambitious initiatives to reduce GHG emissions, from Walmart’s Project Gigaton to Microsoft’s carbon-negative plan. Despite the federal administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, American business leaders declared commitment to the global pact’s emissions reductions as part of the We Are Still In coalition, with over 2,270 businesses and investors signing on. To date, these strong ESG commitments have not been diminished by the COVID-19 pandemic. To the contrary, business leaders are largely embracing the prospect of a green recovery and, in fact, 155 companies, all part of the Science Based Targets Initiative and the Business Ambition for 1.5°C campaign, have signed a “recover better” statement that supports a green recovery that tackles both the COVID-19 emergency and the climate crisis. These private-sector initiatives will play a pivotal role in the way the COVID-19 pandemic impacts climate in the long term.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents threats and opportunities for decarbonization. While creating massive difficulties and struggle for families, the pandemic has demonstrated the potential to adopt lower-carbon lifestyles. Moreover, the opportunity for a green recovery could kick-start both the economy and the decarbonization agenda, with promising signals of support from the private sector. More broadly, while the response to the virus has been hampered by the deep polarization in the United States, it has also highlighted our shared humanity and demonstrated the need to work together as a society in the face of a common threat. Although COVID-19 presents a more immediate and visible threat to our well-being, the lessons we have learned can drive mobilization around decarbonization and enable us to prepare for the long-term and even greater threat to our future presented by climate change. In fact, avoiding that future crisis may very well depend on how we respond to the current one.

All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.