No long-term climate benefits from COVID-19 – Expert Reaction

Policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will have a ‘negligible’ impact on long-term warming, according to new research.

Scientists have calculated that recent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants may only result in climate cooling of 0.005–0.01°C by 2030. However, the findings also suggest that if governments pursue a ‘green recovery’ from the pandemic, then global warming could possibly be kept within 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels by 2050.

The SMC asked experts to comment on this research.

Catherine Leining, Policy Fellow at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research and Commissioner at the New Zealand Climate Change Commission, comments:

“The paper by Forster et al. in Nature Climate Change (August 2020) reinforces a critically important message for policy makers and businesses: how we invest today to recover from COVID-19 will determine the climate of our future. The short-lived behaviour change which reduced emissions during lockdown will not produce lasting climate benefits if we remain locked into fossil-fuel-dependent pathways. Shifting stimulus investment away from fossil fuels and into low-carbon technologies is essential to ‘bend the curve’ of global emissions permanently downward and avoid dangerous levels of climate change.

“The global recovery from COVID-19 is in its early days. Data sets are still under development and the modelling assumptions applied in the study are complex. The scenarios developed by the authors are tools for analysis, not predictions of the future.

“The insights emerging from this study are clear. The world cannot afford to repeat the experience of the Global Financial Crisis, where global emissions fell by 1.4% in 2009 and then rebounded to an increase of 5.1% in 2010 as the world locked in the next decade of emissions growth. The uncertainty we face in our economic recovery also creates enormous opportunity. ‘Lockdown’ must not mean ‘lock in’ to the fuels and technologies of our past.

“To help shape New Zealand’s response to COVID-19, the Climate Change Commission recently developed six principles to use when making decisions on economic recovery.

“These principles provide a framework for assessing policy or investment decisions to ensure they are not detrimental to the climate, do not stop us from meeting our climate targets, and do not pass the hard work on to future generations.

“The six principles are:

  1. Consider how investments can deliver long-term climate benefits
  2. Bring forward transformational climate change investments that need to happen anyway
  3. Prepare our workforce for the jobs of tomorrow
  4. Work in partnership
  5. Maintain incentives to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change
  6. Change how we measure the success of economic recovery to include progress toward an inclusive, low-emissions and climate-resilient future.

“More detail on the Commission’s principles and how they can be used is available online.

“A recently released New Zealand Climate Change Poll by IAG reported that 86% of the people they surveyed believe that climate change should play a part in the COVID-19 economic recovery plan.

“The challenge before us is not to predict our future, but to shape it.”

No conflict of interest

Professor Dave Frame, School of Geography, Environmental and Earth Science, Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“The paper is making a pretty obvious point: that because the current disruption isn’t making a permanent dent in global CO2 emissions, it’s unlikely to have much of a long-term impact on warming.

“There may be a few silver linings from a climate perspective if habits of remote working and remote collaboration – rather than in-person conference attendance – become more normalised, but these are relatively small change in the global picture.

“Of more long-term significance, I think, is the possibility of trying to ensure that subsequent fiscal stimulus packages are as low carbon as possible. Those investments have yet to be made, and they will determine the climate legacy of the COVID-related disruptions.”

No conflict of interest