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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  • GAY
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    1. At 9:19AM on 14 March 2020, GAY wrote

    In my opinion, I would write instead of "eclipsing" in the title of your item:

    "The COVID-19 positive Effect:

    Why coronavirus is encouraging and enforcing Thunberg's fight on climate change?"

    Anyway yes indeed I expect this pandemic will shake up consciences and have an impact on every individual behavior!....

    Vincent - French Citizen ***

  • Sue
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    2. At 10:46PM on 15 March 2020, Sue wrote

    This, as far as I can see, will be the only good thing that comes from this pandemic. I cannot envisage humanity making long term changes to their behavior unfortunately. But hopefully some wake up call is shown by events and factual statistics.

  • Cindy Long
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    3. At 5:17PM on 16 March 2020, Cindy Long wrote

    Professor Bryson, in your opinion, what could governments do to encourage rightshoring (or reshoring, if that were the best option)?

  • Kasun rajakaruna
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    4. At 7:44PM on 16 March 2020, Kasun rajakaruna wrote

    Dearest,

    Nowadays we’re having also this virus. Government told “Stay at Home” to all people.

    On the other hand changing lot of things around us and earth.

    Thank you

  • Tim wells
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    5. At 9:07PM on 16 March 2020, Tim wells wrote

    A strong indication of why people and governments will only do the right thing when the consequences are immediately visible. We won't act in a coordinated and meaningful way on climate change because we will have to give up wealth for a future benefit that most won't see. When we do realise the need for imminent change, it will be too late.

  • Hassan
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    6. At 1:26PM on 17 March 2020, Hassan wrote

    In my opinion, COVID-19 refutes two fallacies:

    1. The first fallacy, which is championed by the capitalists and the pseudo-capitalists, claims that the earth can only sustain its increasing inhabitants by the accelerated rate with which world economies are going right now. COVID-19 is the real indication that the rate could be much lower and that that will be much better for the world and its inhabitants and will give the earth the opportunity to heal. But I do not expect the greedy capitalists will take notice or take their feet off the speeding pedal.

    2. The second fallacy claims that humans only change when they are pushed to the brink of collapse. COVID-19 will leave and everything will go back to where it was or even get worse.

  • Naj Ebrahim
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    7. At 7:15AM on 19 March 2020, Naj Ebrahim wrote

    Now nature has seen what it needed to do to get better. Most of humanity doesn’t change its bad habits. Many people are dead because we were selfish, which is why COVID-19 is killing so much. When humanity sees that the end is coming, it will be too late!

  • Anthony kelham
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    8. At 10:58AM on 19 March 2020, Anthony kelham wrote

    This may sound strange but I believe this is a experiment to see reaction to climate change and by statistics published the results are encouraging

    Personally do not think this disease is as bad as made out to be and more convinced it is for experimental purposes as well

  • Anna
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    9. At 2:47PM on 19 March 2020, Anna wrote

    I think that the governments must consider the potential risk of any pandemy and they must cooperate to each other informing with scientific projects especially those with huge human impact. Also, large amount of money are spreded around in silly ideas when in meantime we are so britle in our environment.

  • Alkè
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    10. At 10:49AM on 20 March 2020, wrote

    The change in habits, towards "greener" ones, has significantly improved the levels of air pollution. Staying at home and working in "smart working" is just one of the solutions adopted. After this emergency situation, will we be able to use the bike or an electric car?

  • Mel
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    11. At 10:51PM on 20 March 2020, Mel wrote

    You really needed to mention Greta's name here? I don't know your personal opinion about her "effect" or movement, but I can assume you think it's not working at all. Well, as you said, "COVID-19 effect" is having "important, immediate and effective" repercussions right now, but, as thousands of doctors and climate scientists are saying, once the threat of coronavirus passes, the industrial pollution is likely to bounce back quickly. On the other hand, Greta's movement is having a strong long term impact, changing people's minds and behavior.

    This "COVID-19 effect", as you call it, is definitely not eclipsing Thunberg's effect, it's encouraging and enforcing it (as someone above mentioned).

  • Peter Howells
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    12. At 2:53PM on 23 March 2020, Peter Howells wrote

    My first thought when the COVID-19 pandemic started to take hold was "OK Mother Nature, you tried to tell us gently - now we will see your wrath for not paying attention" This situation has been hovering around the world for years and years, not only Greta Thunberg have begged us but numerous people for numerous years have been at pains to point out the error of our ways. Too late now - we have all got what we deserve........

  • Marsha Schleiffers
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    13. At 3:10AM on 25 March 2020, Marsha Schleiffers wrote

    I think Covid 19 is a direct effect of the poor air quality and greenhouse gases (which have a large quality being distributed from China). Most of the places hit hard are busy technology, entertainment places, where cars, buses, and subways are running 24/7. I think the tipping point was the Australia fires, and all the fires that happen constantly in California. The planet is saying “No more no more😭😢” The reason this virus is so hard to find is because we are looking in humans not at the air quality. And I think the reason it hardly hits kids is because their lungs have not been exposed enough to this poor air as long as the rest of us. If we want to be around, we have to start putting solar panels on roofs and apartment buildings, start driving electric cars and make all vehicles electric, and come up with innovative ways to make our planet planet friendly.

  • Lia
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    14. At 4:31PM on 26 March 2020, Lia wrote

    I sure hope it leads to a serious re-think about our habits. The environmental gains are worth so much and many of the adjustments made during covid- can be sustained - buy less consumer goods in general, work from home more, support local, travel internationally much less, etc.

  • Chris
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    15. At 12:02AM on 27 March 2020, Chris wrote

    The wake up call the world has needed! Call it what ever you like, this news about our environment and the evidence needs to run with the Covid-19 Story now. With scientific proof to back it up so people can understand the links on what we have been doing to the world, they can see the change now in this massive window of opportunity. Get it out there before it is too late.

  • Ann
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    16. At 11:28AM on 28 March 2020, Ann wrote

    I've been watching hours of BBC news and have been disappointed to notice that this issue has not been mentioned. Given their very wide audience, they might be able to spread the environment discussion further to good effect.

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