FreeWord – Coronavirus, the unexpected cure for carbon emissions?

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Hello folks, this article concentrates on the world’s most hectic topic – coronavirus, and its environmental effects.

The rapidly spreading coronavirus (COVID-19) has infected more than 130,000 people worldwide as of today, causing fears of a global pandemic and destabilizing the global markets. (Estimated 4.6 million people die each year from causes directly attributable to air pollution, which is more than 12,000 a day.) The coronavirus epidemic that has paralyzed the Chinese economy and limited global air traffic may have a silver lining for the environment. Despite the negative effects on human health and our economy, the coronavirus also has been found to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

With streets empty of cars, most people have yet to return to work after coronavirus quarantines and lockdowns, China’s had the lowest air pollution levels on record over the past few weeks. China’s carbon emissions have dropped by at least a quarter, to an estimated 200 million metric tonnes, according to a study in CarbonBrief by Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst at the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air. That drop translates to an approximate 6 percent decline in overall global emissions. Could this be a wake-up call for climate policy?

China is the world’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and is a key player in climate negotiations. As the United States withdraws from the Paris Agreement, China’s alignment on carbon commitments will help determine whether Cop26 is a success or not. Regrettably, due to recent events, the climate will unlikely be the first priority. In addition, the Chinese government’s future stimulus response to the disruption may outweigh these short-term effects on energy and emissions, as it did after the global financial crisis and the downturn in the domestic economy in 2015.

Global Effects

As the world struggles with the coronavirus, the economic impact is mounting – the OECD warns that the virus presents the biggest threat to the world economy after the financial crisis. There is no single parameter that credibly describes or anticipates the economic impact of Corona. Global financial markets have reacted strongly in recent weeks as the virus spread to Europe and the Middle East, and has terrified the global pandemic. This has awakened some to fear that the global economic downturn is resulting in recession.

As coronavirus continues to sweep the world, the travel industry has been dealt a particularly hard blow. 4200 flights have been canceled just today, with many airlines suspending flights not only to and from mainland China but worldwide. We are now getting announcements like the U.S. suspends all travel from Europe for the next 30 days on a daily basis. The outbreak could cost the airline industry hundreds of billions of dollars in lost revenues. Airlines especially, already operating on tight profit margins, particularly smaller ones, can bleed through money quite quickly, and some already have. However, this decline in air travel has been found to be playing a supporting role in reducing carbon emissions.

If this could change the way we travel, it could lead to more virtual meetings.

Rob Jackson, Professor of Earth System Science

In addition, more carbon savings will come from people working remotely, the cancellations of international conferences and events linked to the fossil fuel industry. Aviation remains one of the most carbon-intensive activities, accounting for approximately 2 percent of global emissions.

Supply Chains and Renewables

Despite the current positive carbon effect, climate impact policy is not that straightforward – reducing carbon emissions depends on the supply chains needed for solar panels, wind turbines, and other renewables. What if these supply chains get disrupted? Factory closures slow down the flow of products and parts from China and affect companies around the world, including the renewable sector. China dominates the global solar panel market, and China is the leading supplier of rare earth elements.

Coronavirus supply disruptions are already causing serious problems, for example in India, which imports 80% of its panels from China. However, the problem of decarbonization does not concern the availability of finished products. Panels could and should be manufactured in a variety of countries. Is it time to decentralize for the future?

Over 85 percent of the world’s neodymium comes from China. Neodymium is considered to be a key component of permanent magnets as one of the most critical elements in the rare earth family for the development of modern society. It plays a significant role in increasing efficiency and reducing weight in many applications such as hard disk drives, audio players, conventional wind turbine design, and electric vehicles with NiMH batteries.

Decarbonization Needs a Supply Chain Strategy

The consequences can be serious when inputs come predominantly from a handful of countries. Climate advocates are in favor of a policy that has clear decarbonization targets without outlining a critical mineral sourcing strategy. For example, the proposal for the Green New Deal does not mention this issue.

Facts About the Coronavirus

Conclusion

Even though the coronavirus epidemic has shown positive effects on our carbon emissions, economic disruption is not a politically viable way to deal with global warming in the long run, and it also subdues the engines of innovation that could bring us new improvements. The coronavirus has revealed the downside of globalized supply chain and the political perils of allowing China to dominate it – decarbonization requires a worldwide Supply Chain Strategy.

In addition, this slowdown in carbon emissions could buy us time for climate action, and more importantly, inspire long-term behavioral changes – particularly regarding travel. Companies, for instance, tend to stay productive even though many people are working from home. This doesn’t only save the environment but it also creates monetary savings for commuters and businesses if it is adopted long term.


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