Climate change

What COVID-19 lockdowns taught us about climate change

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Last year, the COVID-19 lockdowns saw road traffic in the UK fall by over 70%, and industrial emissions from China between February to March 2020 were reduced by 18%, a cut of 250 million tons. The cleaner air quality that resulted from less industrial and commercial activity saw 2 million people in the UK with respiratory conditions like asthma experience reduced symptoms.

The total greenhouse gas reduction in 2020 was around 7% or 2.6 billion metric tons, which is the largest reduction in emissions in history. To reach the Paris Agreements goals that would limit global warming to less than 2°C, we need to reduce emissions by 1-2 billion metric tons a year throughout the 2020s.

The lockdowns in the UK helped tremendously in reducing COVID-19 deaths. Still, they did see some adverse side effects, notably large scale protests, accusations of government overreach and authoritarianismdamage to the economymass unemployment and a rise in mental health issues which have disproportionately affected young people. So, it would be expected that continuous or seasonal climate lockdowns would worsen these negative effects and fuel existing conspiracy theories that climate scientists are trying to take over the world Pinky and the Brain style.

Unlike what has been churned around in some corners of the internet, scientists do not want to impose climate lockdowns but rather lockdown-sized reductions to greenhouse emissions.

Professor Corinne Le Quéré, the Royal Society Professor of Climate Change Science at the University of East Anglia, told The Guardian: “We need a cut in emissions of about the size of the fall [from the lockdowns] every two years, but by completely different methods.”

Such methods that could be implemented include greater investment in renewable energy, more efficient and water-saving farming techniques, grass-fed beef, carbon capture technology, completion of the Great Green Wall across Africa and many more scenarios.

For example, geothermal energy has an estimated upfront cost of about $155 billion. Still, it would save $1,020 billion and reduce CO2 emissions by 16.6 billion metric tons (or over a quarter of the Paris Agreements recommendation) by 2050, according to the 2017 book Drawdown.

Although such solutions do require significant upfront costs, the environmental benefits and amount of money saved would more than outweigh any initial costs and provide a positive legacy for future generations. After all, we know the causes of anthropogenic climate change, understand its effects, know how to stop it, and most frustratingly, already have the technology to prevent it.

The only thing we lack is political and economic will. Perhaps the environmental benefits of the covid lockdowns would encourage governments, businesses and individuals to take greenhouse gas reduction more seriously, or it is possible that climate lockdowns could be forced upon us in the future.

Cover image: Richard Hurd via Flickr. No changed were made. Licence here.

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