On March 11, 2020, Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. In an effort to slow the spread of the virus and save lives, countries around the world enacted lockdowns, border closures, and social distancing policies. Months of widespread sheltering orders have dramatically changed the activity of billions of people in highly disruptive and highly unpredictable ways—and have created the conditions for a unique global experiment, say scientists.
In a paper published earlier this summer, an international team of researchers, led by Noah Diffenbaugh (Stanford University professor, former PCCRC director) and including Thomas Hertel (professor of agricultural economics, Purdue University), explore the potential outcomes arising from the unprecedented changes in human activity brought on by the pandemic and outline research priorities for understanding their short and long-term consequences. What we learn may lead to a deeper understanding of linkages between human behavior, poverty, environmental degradation, and climate destabilization and could help ensure an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable recovery from the pandemic. It could also help us come to grips with the looming climate crisis.
The authors propose examining the immediate and longer-term consequences of COVID-19 along two cascading pathways: 1) energy, emissions, climate, and air quality; and 2) poverty, globalization, food, and biodiversity. To help elucidate cause and effect and unravel the complex interactions along these pathways, the authors call for coordinated studies that bring together multidisciplinary tools and perspectives. This includes efforts aimed at gathering different kinds of data and conducting coordinated model simulation experiments.
As of July 2020, 50% of the world’s population is estimated to have been under some version of sheltering orders. This reduction in human mobility and economic activity was observed in many cities around the world as skies cleared due to the reduced air pollutant emissions. The lasting impacts to climate and air quality remain to be seen, however. Multiple interacting factors — market forces, public preferences, and policy interventions— will ultimately define the future trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants. Will government stimulus spending focus on green investments and accelerate decarbonization or will the economic recession delay implementation of ambitious climate policy, loosen emissions standards, or decrease investments in low-carbon energy systems? Data collected during COVID-19 sheltering could be leveraged to improve our understanding of the connections in the energy-emissions-climate-air quality pathway, and clarify the potential environmental tradeoffs to decision makers.
For example, policy interventions to improve air quality (such as vehicle electrification) have relied heavily on theoretical arguments and model simulations. The scale of recent emissions reductions provides an opportunity to use atmospheric observations to check how accurate those models are in simulating the impact of policies like electric vehicle incentives. Other studies can help scientists better understand the effects of human activity (e.g. air travel) on the climate more broadly. For example, when you look up at a clear blue sky, you might see an airplane leaving behind a distinct white trail of clouds. Those clouds, or contrails, are produced by aircraft engine exhaust or changes in air pressure. Although their effects vary and are difficult to quantify, their overall net effect is warming. During this time of reduced air travel, satellite observations and new algorithms can be used to test the hypothesis that fewer planes and fewer contrails are helping to cool the atmosphere.
Whether it’s a public health crisis or the impacts of a changing climate, one thing that most shocks have in common is that they hit the poorest and the most vulnerable the hardest. By amplifying underlying inequities, the researchers note that the economic shocks of COVID-19 will increase the extent and severity of poverty both from the direct impacts on health, employment, and incomes and through disruptions of supply chains and global trade. Data are already emerging on rising poverty rates and decreasing food security. These impacts are likely to reduce available resources for climate mitigation and adaptation, increasing climate risks to the most vulnerable and exacerbating climate-related inequities.
The authors note that deepening global poverty will also likely lead to cascading negative impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity (e.g., deforestation, land degradation, poaching) as a larger share of the global population is pushed toward subsistence. Coordinated studies along the poverty, globalization, food, and biodiversity pathway could answer near-term questions related to the effects of COVID-19 on local labor supply and global supply chains. In the longer term, analysis of policy interventions designed to simultaneously alleviate poverty and protect natural resources, such as payments for ecosystem services, could provide a deeper understanding of how and where poverty and environmental degradation are most tightly linked while also helping communities weather COVID-19-related poverty shocks.
The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the lives and livelihoods of people around the world. By studying how the relationship between people and the planet has changed, as outlined in this important paper, the COVID-19 scoioeconomic disruption could provide important insights into the function and response of the Earth System, and help support a safe, resilient, and sustainable recovery.
Diffenbaugh, N.S., Field, C.B., Appel, E.A. et al. The COVID-19 lockdowns: a window into the Earth System. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 470–481 (2020).