While many countries are on course for the worst GDP growths since the global financial crisis and some countries might even suffer more compared to the last financial crisis, global emission trajectory might well rebound swiftly after the pandemic
The global communities are confronted with plentiful of challenges.
Our lifestyles, resource consumption and extraction patterns, the way we have exploited the natural system without considering its regeneration and among other things, the externalities, the negative ones to be exact, are being generated as byproducts of our pursuit for development have taken hefty tolls on the planet.
As a result, one of the defining challenges for the present and future generations is climate change and its current and worrisome negative impacts on the future.
Scientists and researchers have repeatedly warned policymakers and citizens to reconsider the traditional development pathways and their current lifestyles. Many activists and UN agencies have also echoed the same.
In 2015, following the signing of Paris Climate agreement, supported by the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of many countries, there have been several calls from scientists, activists, IPCC, UNFCCC and policymakers to lower their emission trajectories to make global emission level compatible with the Paris climate goal.
Notably, many have argued as to why countries should enhance their ambitions beyond the level committed in the Paris agreement.
Despite conscientious moves of many countries towards sustainable energy transition and interventions for cutting down the excessive level of emissions, it appeared even before the Covid-19 pandemic that we were missing the target due to higher emission trajectory.
The level of actions on the ground fell abysmally short of the ambition needed to be within global warming of 1.5° C and 2° C bars.
Now, the Covid-19, perhaps the greatest crisis for the generation, has disrupted economic activities, production systems, supply chains and other essential and non-essential activities in a way that GHG emissions over last several months have eventually gone down.
This means the amount of GHGs that have been released to the atmosphere in Covid-19 scenario is less than what could be emitted otherwise under business-as-usual (BAU) scenario.
In any case, the temporary halt in emission, led by a natural system, has thus far delivered many environmental benefits that people might have never seen in their lifetimes. Local air quality has improved in different parts of the world. The world looks much greener now.
While there are many discussions over the environmental benefits of last six to seven months, these are temporary, to say the least, unless we step up to build back better than returning to BAU once the pandemic is over. And I would dwell upon this based on pieces of evidence of the past global crises.
While many countries are on course for the worst GDP growths since the global financial crisis and some countries might even suffer more compared to the last financial crisis, global emission trajectory might well rebound swiftly after the pandemic.
Past major crises portray, at least, so. The global financial crisis of 2008-09, for instance, did not affect long term GHG mitigation. Human-induced carbon emissions in 2010, as depicted in the black curve of the graph, reached 9 Petagrams (Pg) or 9 billion tonnes, recording nearly 6 percent higher emissions than the previous year.
While there was crisis led dip in emissions in 2009, overall emissions rebounded next year, leading the world to a path of even higher emissions and offering policymakers more bumpy roads in their ways to contain global warming.
As it can be seen from the above graph, there were GHG emission reductions, driven by all crises since the oil crisis of the 1970s and a common attribute, i.e., rise in GHG emissions afterwards is visible.
Same is with carbon intensity (red curve). However, a sharp contrast is that the recession-led emission reductions in all cases lasted for several years unlike in 2008 financial crisis, which caused dip in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions only for a short span and was quickly reversed within a year.
Many saw the global financial crisis of 2008 as an opportunity to explore with clear visions to move away from the persistently carbon-intensive economic pathway but in reality, what we achieved was something else.
We rather saw a very different transition, meaning that the opportunity was not taken. In the present case, daily global GHG emissions, according to a peer-reviewed article published in the Nature Climate Change journal, fell by 17% until early April 2020.
This steep decline in GHG emissions can simply be attributed to the unprecedented global crisis triggered by Covid-19 and associated lockdowns around the world.
Against the backdrops, record stimulus packages have been declared by different countries to prop up the ailing sectors.
While some countries are targeting green recovery, the concern is that quick-fix strategies may lead some governments to allocate money to the polluting sectors and thus promoting fossil fuels that would, in the end, shoot up emissions rather than ensuring low carbon development.
Therefore, as we move forward, we need to revisit the way emissions following the 2008 financial crisis had rebounded and this time, we need to seize every opportunity that is being offered by Covid-19.
If we truly want to realize our climate goals, we need to build back better in post-Covid-19 era. Otherwise, the massive economic disruption induced current dip in GHG emissions is insignificant to our fight against climate change.
Shafiqul Alam is a Humboldt scholar, an engineer and an environmental economist. He is a senior advisor to International Development Agency.