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COVID-19 and Climate Change – Expert Reaction

With flights grounded and cars off roads, this week has seen historic declines in the price of oil.

While reduced emissions from transport may have environmental benefits, the economic impact of lockdown could also hinder climate change mitigation strategies.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the relationship between COVID-19 and climate change.

Professor Alan Brent, Chair in Sustainable Energy Systems, Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Globally, the price of crude oil has plunged due to lockdowns and travel restrictions. Standard Chartered has projected a 20% drop in the demand for oil in 2020 from the world’s typical usage of 100 million barrels per day.

“We have yet to see what the real implications will be for New Zealand. However, the Government has not deemed oil production an essential service. Nearly all of the roughly 25 to 30 thousand barrels per day are exported – and therefore not required for domestic energy security, so we can expect that to drop sharply. The major clients of the Marsden refinery, which includes the aviation industry that reduced to a near-halt, have negotiated an around 50% reduction in refining output for the next two months, so we can expect our crude oil imports, of around 105 thousand barrels per day, to also decrease by around 20% over 2020, similar to what is projected globally.

“This means a significant reduction in the use of transportation fuels, which account for nearly 50% of our energy-related emissions. If the projected reduction in oil imports do realise, that could mean a reduction in carbon emissions of around 10%; to levels last seen at the turn of the century. And, of course, carbon emission is but one metric of the environmental performance of the economy. For example, local air pollution levels have dropped significantly since the start of the pandemic.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor C. Michael Hall, Department of Management, Marketing and Entrepreneurship, University of Canterbury, comments:

“COVID-19 will likely have some short-term benefits in terms of emissions reduction in tourism, primarily because of the decline in aviation which is most significant sector in terms of tourism’s contribution to climate change. COVID-19 therefore represents a major opportunity to change the trajectory of tourism’s emissions away from business as usual, but I doubt that this will happen for several reasons.

“Most countries’ bail-outs of airlines are not coming with conditions that would improve long-term sustainability. Many in the aviation industry are pushing back hard against such measures. Even if airlines do go under, the infrastructure remains and, combined with an available workforce seeking employment, you have a recipe for yet further budget airlines moving people around cheaply but without consideration of environmental costs. The majority of destinations desperate to make a quick economic recovery and reduce unemployment will try to get as many tourists through the door as possible – even at low prices.

“A crisis such as this does provide opportunities to rethink tourism. Encouraging domestic tourism, for example, not only reduces emissions but also helps retain money that might have otherwise gone overseas. COVID-19 also highlights the need for the real environmental and biosecurity costs of tourism to be covered by the tourist and business.

“Unfortunately, when you have a crisis like this, we too often find that the more sustainable alternatives that look to provide longer-term economic solutions will be rolled over by the short-termism of Business As Usual because that’s what people know and think they understand. All too often, at times like these, we are dealing as much with a crisis of the economic imagination, and how the economy ultimately depends on social and environmental wellbeing, as we are with COVID-19.”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Simon Hales, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“Living in 21st century New Zealand, it is easy to lose sight of the reality that human societies are embedded in a planetary ecosystem, upon which all life on Earth ultimately depends. But the Covid-19 pandemic has brought home the fundamental fragility of human societies.

“Global climate change and pandemics share some important characteristics. Both are ‘wicked’ problems with potentially severe consequences and high policy uncertainty. Both involve delayed effects and the risk of positive feedbacks which demand anticipatory action. In the case of Covid-19, the consequences of a delayed policy response are becoming tragically clear.

“In New Zealand and elsewhere, the degree of public unity in the face of unprecedented restrictions on personal freedoms has been inspiring. We need a similar degree of unity within and between countries if we are to avoid the worst effects of global climate change. This threat has a different timescale, over decades and centuries rather than days and weeks. But as with Covid, our scientific models tell us that a grim future is inevitable if we do not act.

“Existential global threats – poverty, food and water insecurity, pandemics, climate change, biodiversity loss – share underlying drivers. These problems can be addressed simultaneously, but first need to be widely recognized and acted upon. There is hope for a sustainable and just future, but as Covid-19 has painfully reminded us, there is such a thing as being too late.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Robert G. Patman, Professor of International Relations, University of Otago, comments:

“The COVID-19 global pandemic is only the latest in a long line of unnecessary catastrophes and disasters. We cannot reverse the clock, but at least we can learn from the experience. The COVID-19 crisis highlighted the absence of a functioning global public health infrastructure, the absence of an effective international crisis-management system, and showed that many nation-states are governed by leaders who put their political pride and interests above the safety and lives of their citizens.

“Nation-states have a strong self-interest in expanding international cooperation. Climate change is also a crisis that knows no borders. It is unfolding more slowly than COVID-19 but will have even greater consequences. The world had a chance to tackle it in the early 1990s, but blew that opportunity through decades of denial.

“Much future damage caused by climate change cannot now be avoided. But wise public policy can still limit the impact of this impending disaster – if all nation-states take the challenge seriously. And disruptive events like COVID-19 will not only facilitate new perspectives on the global dangers of climate change, but also alert leaders to the new strategic opportunity that is presented. As two former US Secretaries of State recently observed, the winners “of the emerging clean energy race” will decisively shape world politics in the 21st century.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Justin Hodgkiss, Co-Director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“The negative price of crude oil on the US market this week was remarkable and unprecedented, but it is important to separate the immediate situation from the future of fuel in the post-COVID world.

“The negative price came from a perfect storm of circumstances. There was already an oversupply of oil from the Russia-Saudi price war before demand collapsed amidst the global COVID-19 lockdowns. This situation was exacerbated by a quirk of the US oil market: futures contracts expiring this week required buyers to take physical possession of the oil in May, but with storage tanks already full during lockdowns, owning oil suddenly became a liability.

“Looking ahead, the economic reboot in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic leaves us at a crossroad of future energy paths. On the one hand, oil producers will be eager to get supplies flowing again, and lubricating an economic recovery with cheap oil might be a tempting option in the face of a global recession.

“But on the other hand, the sheer impact of the COVID-19 pandemic – the human and economic cost of inaction, and the collective global effort required to overcome it – is a stark reminder of a far bigger threat. Imagine how urgently we would respond if the climate crisis unfolded on a timescale of weeks (like a pandemic), rather than years and decades?

“There is no doubt that the post-COVID economy will look very different. Our collective perception of risks, priorities, fairness, and what is essential has suddenly changed. In the face of a serious threat, we crave evidence-based decision making, and we have shown that we can unite around a common purpose. Fresh lessons from this global crisis – and the need to reboot the economy ­– might just be a window of opportunity for low carbon energy sources to set us on a path that averts the worst scenarios of a climate crisis.

“In addition to further electrification of transport and industry using renewable electricity, hydrogen is highly touted as a future fuel as it can be produced from renewable electricity, and it generates only water when it is used. Even carbon based fuels can be carbon-neutral if combustion is coupled with carbon capture and then regeneration of fuels through renewable energy and hydrogen. Future fuels are likely to be many and diverse, with different benefits in different markets.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Susan Krumdieck, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Canterbury, and Co-Founder of the Global Association for Transition Engineering, comments:

“In response to COVID-19, political leaders have listened to science and put limits on activities to save lives and preserve the healthcare system. People listened to the science, got directives from their bosses, and joined in the common behaviour of shutting down our activity systems. People could understand that “flattening the curve” required these actions. People understood how a particular action was required and would be enforced, and how it would achieve the outcome.

“The science describing the thermodynamics of changing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gas is as clear as the science describing the trajectory of a pandemic. The warnings that scientists have been giving have been much more horrifying regarding the deaths, and the manner of those deaths from heatwaves, fires, flood, hurricanes, famines, diseases. A good number of political leaders listened to the science and signed up to the Paris Agreement in 2015 to limit global warming. The majority of people are aware of the issue, and the largest climate protest ever was held last year, led by children, those by far the most affected. But last year emissions increased more than any previous year.

“What is the difference between the two crises that threaten so many lives? I am not going to say that global warming is a slow-moving disaster, or that big oil, coal and gas have conspired to inject confusion and exercise political influence. What is different is that the experts are missing from the climate emergency newsroom. I don’t mean the climate scientists – I mean the engineers.

“The emissions are generated by well-designed, well-built and well-operated systems, being used the way they were intended at a profit and providing benefits and comforts. If all those systems that produce and use fossil fuels must downshift to save lives, then where are the engineering experts standing behind the Prime Minister, waiting for their time at the podium to explain to the people, businesses, schools and producers what measures will be taken, how they will flatten the curve, how it will work, and how it will be done? Where are they? Where are the Transition Engineers?”

No conflict of interest.