Covid-19 Shows Why There Won’t Be Global Action on Climate Change

  • Date: 28/03/20
  • Richard Drake, Climate Scepticism

This is pretty much Jason Bordoff’s headline in Foreign Policy magazine today, except I left out the “Sorry”. And that’s because I’m not.

Sorry, but the Virus Shows Why There Won’t Be Global Action on Climate Change

Here are some highlights.

To slow the spread of COVID-19, governments are clamping down to force collective action when individuals fail to follow guidelines. Cities across the world are shutting down businesses and events, at great cost. Yet the effectiveness of any one government’s action is limited if there are weak links in the global effort to curb the pandemic—such as from states with conflict or poor governance—even if the world is in agreement that eradicating a pandemic is in every country’s best interest. Climate change is even harder to solve because it results from the sum of all greenhouse gas emissions and thus requires aggregate effort, a problem particularly vulnerable to free-riding, as my Columbia University colleague Scott Barrett explains in his excellent book Why Cooperate? The Incentive to Supply Global Public Goods. And whereas governments can force people to stay home, there is no global institution with the enforcement power to require that nations curb emissions.…

While public concern with climate change is rising, there remains a long way to go. Only half of Americans believe climate change should be a top priority for the federal government, and the figure is far lower on the Republican side of the aisle.

Indeed, COVID-19 itself may actually erode public support for stronger climate action, as the pace of climate ambition wanes during times of economic hardship.…

A huge hit to economic growth would likely mean carbon emissions will fall in 2020 for the first time since the Great Recession of 2008.

That may seem like good news, but it is not. First of all, economic contractions are not a desirable or sustainable way to curb emissions; emissions rebounded sharply after 2009. More importantly, the fact that it takes severe economic slowdowns like the Great Recession or COVID-19 to bring emissions down serves as a reminder of just how strongly tied emissions remain to economic growth—and thus how hard it is to lower them.

That is why energy from renewable sources can grow as rapidly as it has over the past decade and yet fossil fuel use can keep rising at the same time as total energy use rises around the world, especially in fast-growing economies like China and India.…

Policymakers have spent trillions of dollars and passed countless regulations, standards, and mandates to spur clean energy. That it takes a pandemic-induced economic standstill to actually bring emissions down should be a sobering reminder of just how hard addressing climate change will be.

COVID-19 may deliver some short-term climate benefits by curbing energy use, or even longer-term benefits if economic stimulus is linked to climate goals—or if people get used to telecommuting and thus use less oil in the future.

Yet any climate benefits from the COVID-19 crisis are likely to be fleeting and negligible. Rather, the pandemic is a reminder of just how wicked a problem climate change is because it requires collective action, public understanding and buy-in, and decarbonizing the energy mix while supporting economic growth and energy use around the world.

On his penultimate paragraph

COVID-19 may deliver some short-term climate benefits by curbing energy use, or even longer-term benefits if economic stimulus is linked to climate goals—or if people get used to telecommuting and thus use less oil in the future.

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