COVID-19 has led to a medical emergency and sent major cities into lockdown. Factories have ground to a halt, and financial markets across the globe have suffered heavy losses. A prolonged recession seems inevitable and degrowth is becoming a factor.
Governments across the world have taken emergency action to combat the virus. Events are being cancelled and flights grounded. Curbing unnecessary travel has played a big part in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Nitrogen dioxide emissions in major Chinese cities fell between January and February.
It’s a similar story with carbon dioxide emissions, with New York reportedly experiencing a decline of between 5% and 10%.The last time there was a drop in yearly global emissions was in 2009, as the world reeled from the impact of the financial crisis. The sudden drop in global GDP was accompanied by a 1.3% decline in carbon dioxide emissions.
Lower demand brings degrowth
With lower demand for resources, we are effectively witnessing the theory of degrowth in action. Degrowth opposes the current Western capitalist aims of achieving high economic growth and development, instead aiming to reduce global resource consumption and production. Some argue degrowth is the most effective way to tackle the climate crisis. Nonetheless, emissions will likely start to climb again once the pandemic is brought under control, just as occurred after the financial crisis.
People need to demand radical action on climate change to sustain the current reduction in emissions. Climate change is not currently perceived as an immediate threat in the same way as COVID-19.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 4.6 million deaths a year are directly attributable to air pollution. Furthermore, climate change and the subsequent warming of the planet may change transmission patterns of infectious diseases, increasing the frequency of pandemics.
Governments have shown a willingness to act against existential threats. Yet even those that accept the scale of the environmental crisis are surprisingly reluctant to act. Climate change is an existential threat. Governments need to start treating it with the same sense of urgency as COVID-19. This will involve accelerating the development of low carbon alternatives through legislation and carbon taxing.