Covid-19: A teachable moment for how we confront climate change and economic challenges

Nov 30, 2020
Covid-19: A teachable moment for how we confront climate change and economic challenges
Perspective from the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change

For much of 2020, Covid-19 has captured the world’s attention. The pandemic has impacted billions of lives, and with over a million deaths and counting, continues to drive home a profound message that the survival and well-being of our growing and complex society hinges on our willingness to confront environmental threats with global consequences. Key to protecting lives and making our communities more resilient to such threats will be an emphasis on proactive, science-based decision-making at all levels of society.

In this respect, the Covid-19 calamity presents important parallels to the risks and threats that we face from human-induced changes to climate. The scientific process, through counterfactual experimentation, has elucidated the importance and benefits of non-therapeutic measures (e.g. masks, social distancing) to slow the spread and reduce mortality rates from the virus. This scientific approach toward counterfactual evidence has long been critical to our understanding of climate-related threats to our natural ecosystems, managed resources, built environments, human health, economic prosperity and societal sustainability. Yet crucial to reducing the threats, avoiding the risks and averting the dangers is the societal responsibility to act upon scientific evidence.

We have seen encouraging and effective actions with tangible results during the Covid-19 pandemic in a number of countries and states. For climate-related risks, however, we face a more challenging situation. Our actions and preparations must be made far in advance, and the benefits are slow to evolve and materialize.

The pandemic also underscores the impact of climate and weather on human health, particularly their effect on the spread of virulent disease and the ability of humans to cope and recover. With Covid-19, seasonal and geographic attributes of climate, such as humidity, impacts the infection rate. Moreover, chronic increases in heat stress on the human body can negatively affect the immune system, and potentially compromise its ability to fight infection.

While evidence indicates that climate and weather are largely secondary factors in our fight against Covid-19, the virus also exhibits “super-spreading” tendencies, with regional-to-local environmental factors that may play a larger role. Under human-induced climate warming, these influences on a virus’ ambient environment as well as negative physiological impacts may compound and amplify infection and mortality. Our research will continue to explore the extent and severity of future environments, their health-related consequences, and the actions that lead to reduced risk.

The pandemic has not only served as a teachable moment for how we confront the climate crisis and its impacts on human health, but also for how we manage our economies.

Since its emergence in late 2019, Covid-19 has substantially reduced economic activities and greenhouse gas emissions resulting from them. While a declining trend for emissions is a good sign for reaching climate goals, negative impacts of the pandemic on economic growth and emergency measures to stimulate national economies provide a complex picture for future decarbonization efforts. The slowdown in economic growth and energy demand brought about by Covid-19 may not be as beneficial as it might appear on first sight.

In a slow-growth situation, less resources are available for governments to support clean alternatives and for private companies to invest in new technologies. A prolonged slow growth scenario would also likely lead to dramatic impacts on personal finances, from sustained poverty levels to increased inequality. If the market is not growing, technologies have a harder time competing for market share because they need to push out larger fractions of incumbent energy sources.

In a high-growth situation, however, high demand and high energy prices provide substantial incentives for new innovations. Growing demand and market share can drive down the costs of new technologies. When demand for energy is growing, new energy sources mostly add to the mix rather than force an early and costly retirement of existing energy sources. That said, without proper emissions-reduction policies, the growth will not be environment-friendly.

Regardless of the pace of economic development, governments need to intervene to promote a climate sustainability agenda, but resources available for such interventions are highly affected by the Covid-19 crisis. This crisis has also exacerbated negative trends related to protectionism, populism and nationalism. For a climate problem that requires a global solution, these negative tendencies make efforts to establish global decarbonization pathways even more challenging.

The ultimate impact of Covid-19 will depend on the coherence of government policies. Three major world regions, the U.S., China and the European Union, offer some insights into the potential effects of government stimulus measures on economic growth and clean energy development. The European Union has put together a recovery plan in which carbon reduction is a crucial component. In addition to dedicating significant amounts of money to green technologies, the EU plan requires that all of its expenditures be consistent with the objectives of the Paris Agreement. This plan thus encourages technological leadership in many economic sectors where solutions for decarbonization are still under development.

In a surprising move that would require a shift in technological priorities, China has recently announced that it will become “carbon neutral” by 2060. For a country still engaged in a substantial amount of coal-based generation, achieving the stated goal will require very aggressive implementation plans and policies. These efforts will likely be driven by the strategic consideration of technological leadership and providing low-carbon solutions for the rest of the world.

The U.S. response remains to be seen. The timing of China’s announcement seems to be chosen to take advantage of the lack of the U.S. climate leadership. A new U.S. administration will need to act soon and develop policies that direct Covid -19 recovery spending to provide incentives for the private sector to restore leadership in climate action. Wisely designed policies would leverage the Covid-19 crisis to accelerate the development of clean technologies and their dissemination throughout the world.

We and other Joint Program researchers are now analyzing the potential impact of Covid-19 on the environment and economy under different policy scenarios, and will publish our findings in our 2021 Global Change Outlook in the spring.


Photo: Arlington county signage during COVID-19 outbreak, Washington, D.C. (Source:  Flickr/dmbosstone)