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MIT Technology Review

Why the coronavirus outbreak is terrible news for climate change

It’ll sap funding and political will—but actually, it should.

A tiny planet.A tiny planet.
A tiny planet.
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It appears increasingly likely that the global coronavirus outbreak will cut greenhouse-gas emissions this year, as deepening public health concerns ground planes and squeeze international trade.

But it would be a mistake to assume that the rapidly spreading virus, which has already killed thousands and forced millions into quarantine, will meaningfully reduce the dangers of climate change.

As with the rare instances when worldwide carbon pollution dipped in the past, driven by earlier economic shocks, diseases, and wars, emissions are likely to rise again as soon as the economy bounces back. In the meantime, if the virus leads to a full-blown global pandemic and economic crash, it could easily drain money and political will from climate efforts.

In fact, we absolutely should dedicate the bulk of our international attention and resources to the outbreak at this moment, given the grave and immediate public health dangers.

Still, the fear is that the highly contagious coronavirus could complicate the challenges of climate change—which presents serious, if longer-term, threats of its own—at a point when it was crucial to make rapid strides. There are several ways this could happen:

  • If capital markets lock up, it’s going to become incredibly difficult for companies to secure the financing necessary to move ahead with any pending solar, wind, and battery projects, much less propose new ones.
  • Global oil prices took a historic plunge on Monday, driven by a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia as well as coronavirus concerns. Cheap gas could make electric vehicles, already more expensive, a harder sell for consumers. It’s why Tesla’s stock crashed on Monday.
  • China produces a huge share of the world’s solar panels, wind turbines, and lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles and grid storage projects. Companies there have already said they’re grappling with supply issues as well as declines in production and shipments, which have in turn slowed some renewables projects overseas. Any resulting clampdown on trade with the nation where the outbreak originated, which some members of the Trump administration are pushing for, will only further disrupt these clean-energy supply chain and distribution networks.
  • Rising health and financial fears could also divert public attention from the problem. Climate change has become an increasingly high priority for average voters in recent years, and the motivating force behind a rising youth activist movement around the world, building pressure on politicians to take serious action. But in the midst of an economic downturn and public health crisis, people would understandably become more focused on immediate health concerns and pocketbook issues—i.e. their jobs, retirement savings, and homes. The longer-term dangers of climate change would take a back seat.

There are a few potentially countervailing forces as well.

A sustained drop in oil prices could make longer-term investments in clean energy more attractive for major energy players, as a Eurasia Group analyst argued to Axios. And maybe certain nations will respond to an economic crisis with stimulus efforts that pump money into clean energy and climate adaption. 

Some have also suggested that the deadly virus could bring about long-lasting shifts in carbon-intensive behaviors, if people remain fearful of flying and cruise ships, or come to prefer remote working and virtual conferences. Or that our rapid responses in the face of an acute danger show that we can make the sorts of societal changes demanded by the climate change.

But Gernot Wagner, a clinical associate professor at New York University’s Department of Environmental Studies, says most of the risks run against progress on climate change right now—and that we should be very careful about any larger lessons we draw from this moment.

“Emissions in China are down because the economy has stopped and people are dying, and because poor people are not able to get medicine and food,” he says. “This is not an analogy for how we want to decrease emissions from climate change.”

Indeed, the whole point of addressing global warming is to avoid widespread suffering and death. So it’s important to keep in mind, as we game out the long-term consequences of the coronavirus outbreak, that the short-term impacts are clear: many, many people are going to become ill and die. 

That’s an unequivocally bad thing. And slowing the outbreak and providing proper care needs to be our highest priority right now.