To tackle the climate crisis, we need to transform our economies

This article originally appeared in the AXA Research Fund publication ‘Confronting a global crisis’ and is reproduced with permission.

With COVID-19, we have seen a dramatic decrease in emissions of atmospheric pollutants. The lockdowns had immediate positive impacts, in terms of improved air quality, fewer short-lived pollutants in the atmosphere, and a return of wildlife to some areas. Interestingly particulate matter, small particles in the atmosphere, seems to have decreased less than expected. While traffic and industry have reduced because of the lockdown, activity in the agricultural sector continued. This means we may be underestimating the overall impact of agriculture on some pollutants such as particulate matter, at least under the sunny spring weather that we had during the lockdown in Europe.

Over the longer term, lockdowns won’t make much difference to the climate. Carbon dioxide is a gas that remains in the atmosphere for a long time. The lockdown would have had to be sustained over a much longer period to bring any measurable change in this greenhouse gas. That said, the COVID-19 crisis does provide a clear opportunity for climate sciences. In research, we often lack what it is called a counter-factual world – in other words, a view of the world without human activity or carbon emissions. With models, we can remove human influence and build this counter-factual world, but there are definite limitations to models. Now, with the lockdown, we have had a chance to observe the world with much less human activity. In most countries, we were in lockdown for several months – that is a long enough period to reach some conclusions about how we, as humans, interact with the environment. Beyond the changes in atmospheric pollutants that we already mentioned, it is likely that the ongoing economic downturn will have an impact on the exploitation of natural resources in poorer countries. Understanding the interactions between environmental degradation and the economy would be extremely valuable to build resilient climate policies.

“Understanding the interactions between environmental degradation and the economy would be extremely valuable to build resilient climate policies.”

On the issue of health, there are clear synergies with climate mitigation policies that we should take advantage of. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions would also help protect biodiversity and strengthen our own health. The lockdown has shown a correlation between CO2 emission reduction and improvement in air quality– a benefit for those suffering from respiratory illnesses. Food is another example: if we eat less animal protein and more fruit, vegetables or beans, that would be good not only for the environment, but also for human health.

We also should be aware that there are also trade-offs involved as not everything that benefits the climate automatically benefits us or the natural eco-systems around us. Carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere is an example. Doing it through biological means requires a lot of land, which is then in competition with agriculture. The solution is then to make the agriculture more intensive, but that may mean increasing the use of fertilizers. By the same token, hydropower may harm biodiversity as it involves building dams in estuaries or in mountains. Renewable energy is almost carbon-free and increases, but it may carry other damages to the environment. These are complicated equations. Generally, we understand these trade-offs, but they are not made explicit enough in our public debate or in our economic or climate policies.

There is no doubt that, through the pandemic, people are more aware of climate change. We need to build on that before it disappears. It is possible that people’s behavior will change and that they will consume less or in a way that decreases their carbon footprint. With the Paris Climate Agreement, the nations’ aim is to limit warming to “well below two degrees” by 2030. Personally, I would be satisfied if we can meet that +2°C target. Although there is urgency for decreasing emissions of greenhouse gases, the timescale for climate mitigation policies goes well beyond 2030. If you extrapolate to the end of the century the pledges that countries have already made, we are talking of a temperature increase of around +4°C. This is clearly too much and the gap between +2°C and +4°C must be bridged.

“We need to transform the economy – and do so quickly enough to protect the environment, but in a way that also safeguards jobs and livelihoods.”

To do so, we will have to ramp up our efforts, decarbonize our electricity production and transport systems, improve energy efficiency wherever possible and reverse deforestation. Current economic recovery plans give us a chance to do just that. Across the world, governments are putting more public money into our economies. It is a no-brainer that this money should be spent in a way that is not only good for the economy, but also good for the environment, so we have a genuinely green recovery. Certain countries have already started down this path, but the temptation will always be to restart the economy as quickly as possible. Tying green investment directly to the economic recovery helps defuse this issue and clearly, we must strike a balance. With COVID-19 we have seen that shutting down the economy is not the solution to solve the climate crisis. Instead, we need to transform the economy – and do so quickly enough to protect the environment, but in a way that also safeguards jobs and livelihoods.

Olivier Boucher

Member of AXA Research Fund’s Scientific Board and Senior Research Scientist, National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), Paris (France)

Dr. Olivier Boucher studies the physics of climate change; his research has focused on the effects of aerosols on the Earth’s atmosphere and weather patterns. Olivier has been closely involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He has received several awards for his work, including theEGU Outstanding Young Scientist Award and the Harry Otten prize for innovation in meteorology.

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