COVID-19 and Climate: Multifaceted Impacts

March 18, 2020 – 427 ANALYSIS.  The spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has created a global public health emergency and catalyzed an economic recession.  The crisis also has important implications for climate action and resilience-building. This analysis highlights several of these interacting factors.

The unprecedented global public health crisis from COVID-19 has led to a deteriorating global economic outlook, but  also presents a range of implications for climate change. While COVID-19’s immediate impacts include emissions reductions, the longer-term impacts on climate action and resilience-building are more complex. Likewise, COVID-19 may provide insight into how prepared communities are for the increasing frequency of disasters and how financial institutions can prepare for sudden disruptions. This article will explore several of these impacts, outlining topics to watch as we strive to understand the long-term implications and ensure the safety of communities and businesses.

COVID-19 and Emissions

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has led some of the world’s largest economies to grind to a halt as social distancing measures prohibit non-essential business. The resulting emissions reductions provide a small silver lining to this unprecedented global crisis. In mid-February China’s emissions were 25% lower than a few weeks prior and Italy’s nitrogen dioxide emissions have dropped significantly. However, these may be short-term victories for the planet.

There is much more uncertainty on long term effects. On the one hand, this period of disruption will likely be followed by economic stimulus efforts, providing credits to industries with large emissions, such as steel, cement, and airlines, driving a rapid rebound in emissions. On the other hand, experts note that there is potential for the outbreak to shift travel patterns for the long-term, leading to more telecommuting as companies get acclimated to remote work. There is potential for permanently behavior changes that would have long term impact on oil demand and emissions. Whether or not governments focus on promoting a rebound in traditional energy or use this as an opportunity to catalyze a systemic shift to reduce emissions could be a key determinant in the impact on long-term greenhouse gas emissions.

Setbacks to Climate Action

It is evident that in the short-term ambitious climate policies are not a priority, as the attention of citizens and legislators turns to safeguarding communities and economies from the multifaceted impacts of COVID-19. Numerous climate-related events have been canceled, and in-person negotiations planned ahead of COP-26 have been delayed through at least April. The U.K. changed its generous environmental budget allocations and Spain stopped all legislative activity, with implications for climate action. While the European Union has announced a continued commitment to its Green Deal, meant to make the European Union climate neutral by 2050, the news has gotten limited attention due to the circumstances.

As increasingly severe travel and gathering restrictions begin to have rippling impacts, ongoing climate research is disrupted, including arctic research expeditions and several NASA projects. These studies include research on the ocean-atmosphere heat exchange, seasonal hydrology in the Mississippi River, and thunderstorms across the U.S. While NASA does not expect the delays to be detrimental to the projects, delays may range from several months to over a year. This may challenge efforts to ensure that the most current science underpins resilience-building efforts and climate progress.

Lessons Learned in Preparedness

A global pandemic is a well-rehearsed scenario in risk management, and institutions that had prepared and thought through implications of such an occurrence are faring better than those with less preemptive planning. For example, last October banks in Hong Kong underwent a stress test that simulated a pandemic, cyberattack and telecom breakdown happening concurrently. Now facing an actual pandemic, some banks are grateful for additional preparedness measures they had implemented due to the stress test. The COVID-19 crisis may in turn lead banks, other businesses and governments to identify opportunities for additional preparedness measures for future risk.

Reduced Resilience

As communities around the world face various levels of restrictions and concern for large gatherings grow, supply chains are threatened and manufacturing grinds to a halt, vulnerability to climate impacts increases. If a devastating storm or wildfire forced residents from their homes into crowded evacuation centers, the typical damage, loss and public health costs would compound upon the danger and challenges already being faced due to COVID-19. Likewise, the costs of recovery from a climate disaster would be dire on top of the increasing economic uncertainty.

Similarly, as companies face the impacts of the pandemic, including adapting to remote work if possible, an extreme weather event would complicate their efforts. While office buildings and key facilities may be prepared with generators in case of power outages and water proofing for floods, business’ operations are now particularly dependent on public power and communication infrastructure, as well as the resilience of each employee’s home. In addition to the disruption if employees are ill, many businesses are more vulnerable to disruptions from climate hazards during this time, which in turn increases macroeconomic vulnerability. Of course, the pandemic itself has many multifaceted economic and business impacts.

Conclusion: Underscoring the Need for Resilience

COVID-19 has understandably pushed climate action to the back burner as the public health crisis unfolds and fears of a long-term economic recession are pressing. However, the ways policy-makers, business and individuals respond to today’s public health emergency and the resulting successes and failures may provide lessons for responding to other multifaceted disasters, applicable to extreme weather events and natural disasters. Likewise, the COVID-19 crisis may reinforce the value of preparedness for businesses and communities and help highlight opportunities to invest in adaptation and resilience.