Earth Day is here, and the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging. So what better time to think about how the two biggest challenges facing the world overlap in sometimes surprising ways.
As the economy shut down in 2020 due to the pandemic, global carbon dioxide emissions fell for the first time in decades, dropping 6.4 percent, according to data published in the journal Nature.
At first blush, this may look like a silver lining to an otherwise devastating year — perhaps even a way to kickstart progress on the ambitious climate goals outlined in the Paris Agreement.
However, a group of MIT researchers is pushing back against this conclusion with a study showing that COVID will likely have only a minimal effect when it comes to climate change.
"Our projections of global economic activity with and without the pandemic show only a small impact of COVID-19 on emissions in 2030 and beyond," said John Reilly, the study's lead author and co-director emeritus of the MIT Joint Program.
The report looks at changes in the global gross domestic product (GDP) and extrapolates total emissions based on the level of economic activity. Using this somewhat simplified metric, the researchers found that most of the impacts of COVID are likely to taper off by 2035.
As for longer-term changes to economic activities such as shopping, dining, entertainment, and banking services, even combined the impact should be minimal, the study found.
"Emissions from those things only directly account for about 2.5 percent of global emissions, so even if you had a very large reduction in those activities, it would have less than a 1 percent impact on global emissions," he said.
Even if there is less air travel, which accounts for 3 percent of global emissions, in the years ahead, that's likely to contribute only a small portion to global emission cuts.
The drop experienced in 2020 isn't as impressive when weighed against the ambitious goals laid out in the Paris Agreement, which aims for global net-zero emissions by 2050.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) found in 2019 that emissions needed to fall at least 7.6 percent each year between 2020 and 2030 to keep global warming below 1.5°C.
In addition, the report found that COVID shock could lower the cost of meeting short-term targets and actually cause countries to slacken the pace of their climate change efforts.
"While pandemic-induced economic shocks will likely have little direct effect on long-term emissions, they may well have a significant indirect effect on the level of investment that nations are willing to commit to meet or beat their Paris emissions targets," Reilly said.
He added the world can't let the virus push countries in the wrong direction.
"We can't take our eye off the negotiation process and the policy process," he said. "We have to put in place policies and incentives that will continue to drive emissions down. At times, you see people excited that renewable costs are going down, or that maybe the pandemic will change behaviors and we're not going to emit anymore and think, 'Oh this problem is going to solve itself. We don't actually need to have policies.' That would be a mistake."
Already, the pandemic has led to the postponement of a crucial step in the Paris Agreement. The rules of the agreement call for countries to update their "Nationally Determined Contributions" — which refers to their agreed carbon output — on a five-year schedule. That update should have taken place last year, but the pandemic pushed it to fall 2021.
One potential upside, said Reilly, is that the pandemic is forcing countries to reckon with the kind of global crises that climate change could eventually have on the world in time.
"The pandemic wasn't caused by climate change by anyone's estimation," he said. "On the other hand, people did see the pandemic as showing them the dislocation that the world could face if climate change causes vector-borne diseases to increase or other disasters that cause disruption across the planet."
This could push some countries, and private actors, to double down on their efforts.
Indeed, in 2020, dozens of major companies announced net-zero goals, from Apple to PepsiCo to Hershey. A number of countries announced more ambitious targets as well, including China and the European Union, which combined make up a total of 35 percent of global emissions.
While it's still unclear which direction the world will take, Reilly sees his role as pushing countries to "crank the policy a little tighter" rather than take their foot off the gas pedal — or to use a more apt metaphor given the situation, try to pump the brakes.