At the start of the unprecedented pandemic that slowly morphed into what is now just another mundane reality, there was a lot of looking at the bright side. We clung helplessly onto every silver lining we could find in order to stave off the quarantine despair. One of those frequently cited optimistic platitudes became ” well at least lockdowns have helped slow climate change”.
Now, a year after lockdowns began across the globe, the results are in. Did the pandemic really have a noticeable effect on climate change? Here’s what we know now.
The pandemic didn’t have the effect on climate change we’d hoped it would
This is according to Piers Forster PhD, a professor of physical climate change and director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate, University of Leeds.
In fact, Forster’s research found that lockdown actually had a slight warming effect in the spring of last year. Writing for TED he says that this was because as air pollution dropped, so did the ability of aerosols to cool the planet. “This impact on global temperatures was short-lived and very small (just 0.03°C), but it was still bigger than anything caused by lockdown-related changes in ozone, CO2 or aviation”.
He adds that simple climate models that look ahead to 2030 estimate that temperatures around the world “will only be around 0.01°C lower as a result of COVID-19 than if countries followed the emissions pledges they’d already had in place at the height of the pandemic.”
This points to the fact that even with the health of pledges made by nations across the globe, the pandemic hasn’t made much of an impact at all – significantly undermining the silver lining we all touted a year ago.
So, lockdowns can’t help fight climate change?
It’s common sense that looking to lockdowns as a solution to climate change would be extremely unsustainable. Now we also know that they’d be ineffective. We need to find ways of reducing our impact on the environment as a global community. At least, according to Forster, lockdowns shed some light on how to go about that.
He writes that climate scientists used lockdown information as a mirror for global emissions. “If we knew what the emissions were from various economic sectors or from countries before pandemic lockdowns,” he writes, “and we knew by how much activity had fallen, we could assume their emissions had fallen by the same amount.”
This has allowed climate scientists to adapt to operating in real time, and the data they’ve gathered may help us find solutions to the climate crisis. Fingers crossed.
While it may seem hard to think about climate change when so many other distracting things are going on, it’s important not to be lulled into a false sense of security. Lockdowns haven’t really made a dent. More still needs to be done – and fast.
A lot of the action that needs to be taken will require financial investment. According to Forster’s calculations, “investing just 1.2 percent of global GDP in economic recovery packages could mean the difference between keeping global temperature rise below 1.5°C and a future where we are facing much more severe impacts”.
Governments have been slow to make these investments where necessary, and so all of us are left with the task of making small changes where we can instead. Wherever possible, we need to pressure governments to do more.
Ultimately, investing in our world now will see us spending less later.