Analysis

Why the Coronavirus Lockdowns Won’t Save the Planet

The global shutdowns did disrupt pollution for a bit, but how likely is it that the world will collectively decide to forgo consumption to fight climate change for the future greater good?

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Blue skies over shut-down Jakarta
Blue skies over shut-down JakartaCredit: AFP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

It’s tempting to feel that the coronavirus is the planet’s revenge against us. Arguably if we had remained small nomadic groups of locavorian hunter-gatherers, our environmental impacts would have been localized and minor, but our modern “advances” – including a penchant for procreation combined with health care extending our lifespan, consumerism, and industrialization – have poisoned our planetary petri dish.

But no, the planet isn’t a sentient being. It isn’t taking revenge; it’s our own behavior that’s come back to bite us in the behind. Nor is the sigh of environmental relief caused by the coronavirus forcing vast populations of people to stay home likely to be sustained. All it will likely do is give us a breather in which we can realize the gargantuan dimensions of our impact on the en.

There is no indication that humanity at large has exploited the involuntary bout of navel-gazing at home to decide to forgo all non-essential consumption. And if they haven’t, the second the lockdown is lifted, we can expect business and damage to resume as usual.

The lesson from the coronavirus supply chain crunch doesn’t seem to be “let’s learn to get by with less.” It’s “we’d better stock up now before the Joneses buy up all the toilet paper and beer.”

Blue today, gone tomorrow

So the blue skies reappearing over the industrial hubs of the modern world as most heavy industries reluctantly shut down made headlines, but they are likely to return to their normal color of particle-studded gray when the lockdowns end and emissions resume. The same applies to the wildlife shyly appearing on the fringes of urban centers: once cars regain the roads, they will vanish, or get run over.

Satellite images show significant decline in smog over the modern world in February and March compared with the same period of 2019. That is nice, but what difference does it actually make to the bigger picture if the levels of industrial emissions, including pernicious nitrous oxide, diminish because of coronavirus shutdowns, if they resume the day after? It’s interesting but not significant. In the bigger picture, it will be a blip. Some economists suggest that if anything, businesses will likely ramp up emissions as they strive to recoup their lost income and return to the black.

Jackals in Tel Aviv's Hayarkon park, this week.
Jackals in Tel Aviv's Hayarkon park, this week.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Attesting to the collective unrepentant stage of mind: Flights have not in fact ceased. Commercial passenger flights are down but goods continue to be transported. The tracking website Flightradar24 also says that in the last two weeks of March 2020, commercial air traffic shrank by only 41 percent below 2019 levels, to 36,491 flights.

Before the coronavirus, aviation wasn’t slowing; it was expanding. Flightradar says that in 2019, it tracked nearly 69 million flights, an increase of 10 percent over 2018 (much of that was cargo). Airline bankruptcies aside, why think that air traffic will grind to a halt after the coronavirus?

The cruise ship industry is another parameter indicative of mass oblivion: Liners stand charged with causing significant ecological damage and are sources of greenhouse gas emissions, but until the advent of coronavirus at least, they were just becoming ever more popular. Moreover, anybody who gave it a thought would have realized (before the coronavirus turned some ships into pariahs desperate for harbor) that any liner has the potential to become a hotbed of communicable disease. It’s happened before, for instance but not confined to Legionnaire’s disease

By now we know perfectly well that greenhouse gas emission have to stop, and we must decarbonize immediately – not by the year anything. Yet the last round of international climate change talks collapsed and the people in charge of the world’s biggest economies show no sign of acknowledging the science, let alone starting to prepare the people to change their very mindsets about success.

And right now the conversation is about masks (good), vaccines (attention anti-vaxxers, this is what happens when there isn’t a vaccine) and the merits versus the costs of a lockdown, which is at this stage a theoretical discussion since none of us know what the trajectory of the coronavirus will look like.

The aspiration of climate change scientists is to persuade voters, and dictators where appropriate, that business cannot continue as usual. Consumption habits and norms must change. A sudden collapse of economic activity – to borrow market argot, the black swan coming in to roost – doesn’t lead people to a noble eureka moment that we have to stop buying grapes jetted in from another continent, replace our SUVs with sneakers and substitute a cruise to the Galapagos with a nice long walk. It terrifies them.

They didn’t choose to abstain, they’re being forced to and in the democratic West, that doesn’t fly any better than a fat black swan. A few weeks of blue skies and asthma relief are unlikely to persuade everybody to collectively transit toward a sustainable decarbonized economy. You can decide for yourself if, after weeks of forced introspection, you will eschew all travel by cruise liner or plane, forgo a car for public transport, stop eating meat, forgo nonessential imports, and in effect relinquish all nonessential consumption for the sake of future generations.

This article was originally published on April 7, 2020. 

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