The COVID-19 Effect: why coronavirus is eclipsing Thunberg on climate change

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The coronavirus outbreak has seen widespread changes in human behaviour, encouraging companies to alter everyday operations by suggesting employees work from home, which is reducing congestion and enhancing air quality.”

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Developing long-lasting effective solutions to preventing climate change is a very difficult task, akin to Sisyphus’ eternal struggle to push a boulder uphill in Greek mythology. The major difficulty is that developing solutions to climate change involves dramatic alterations to the ways in which we live – everything must alter. This initially will involve minor incremental adaptation, but would rapidly require revolutionary change.

Greta Thunberg’s statements and actions are a constant reminder of climate change and the need for rapid mitigation and adaptation. We can identify the ‘Thunberg effect’ and the impact that this has had on the growth in carbon offsetting. Nevertheless, the Thunberg effect has had an as yet relatively small impact on climate change.

However, last December, a new virus was identified that was impacting on the population of Wuhan province, China. By 23 January, transportation going into and out of Wuhan had been stopped to reduce its spread. Since then, the onset of the coronavirus (or COVID-19) has been having an immediate and perhaps short-to medium-term impact on climate change. We can label this the ‘COVID-19 effect’. In contrast with the Thunberg effect, it is producing results that are arguably more important, immediate and effective.

The coronavirus outbreak has seen widespread changes in human behaviour, encouraging companies to alter everyday operations by suggesting employees work from home, which is reducing congestion and enhancing air quality. NASA’s Earth Observatory  recently released satellite images of China highlight the dramatic reduction in pollution, in particular in nitrogen dioxide (NO2), that occurred this year. Nitrogen dioxide is emitted by motor vehicles, industrial facilities and power plants. This reduction was initially identified around Wuhan, but rapidly spread across China as millions of people have been quarantined and forced to make dramatic alterations to their everyday routines.

There was a gradual reduction in China’s NO2 linked to the 2008 economic recession and another reduction around Beijing associated with the 2008 Olympics. There is also a well-known reduction in pollutants associated with Chinese New Year as factories and businesses across the country close to celebrate this national festival. But NASA has noted that this year is the first time such a drop in NO2 has been observed across several countries beyond China.

The coronavirus has highlighted the dangers of complex and highly fragmented value chains, and also the potential dangers associated with international travel. Internationalisation, including free trade and international tourism, are associated with many benefits. But they also have many potential issues, including contributing to environmental pollution and the spread of disease.

The key issue to explore will be the long-lasting impacts of the COVID-19 effect on responsible businesses. Companies will have to develop strategies to reduce their exposure to potential pandemics. Such strategies will include exploring reshoring and rightshoring and redesigning supply chains to minimise exposure to risk. Such alterations will have environmental impacts that could contribute to reducing the negative impacts of internationalization that are associated with climate change.

For a period, individuals will alter their behaviours to try to avoid the actual or perceived risks associated with the coronavirus and the emergence of other new viral infections, but it remains to be seen whether these behaviours will trigger a longer term change. Nevertheless, the COVID-19 effect on economic activity implies that there urgently needs to be a discussion regarding responsible business and the redesign of supply chains to minimise environmental pollutions and the spread of disease. 

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