Firefighters extinguishing in Sichuan province, China, March 2020
China Daily / Reuters

The economic free fall accompanying the coronavirus pandemic has, by some measures, made the world a cleaner place. Air pollution in Chinese, Indian, and U.S. cities is way down. In China alone, lower air pollution may have saved more lives than the virus has killed so far. In New York City, some pollutants dropped by more than half in just a week. Global emissions of carbon dioxide, the chief long-term cause of climate warming, are on track to drop by eight percent this year. All that cleaner air has come at a huge, unacceptable cost. But could the pandemic lay the foundation for more serious action to protect the environment—including on the greatest of all environmental problems, climate change?

The short answer is: Probably not. Some observers hope that the post-pandemic world will be more inclined to heed scientists’ calls for climate action. Others predict that the enormous cost of stimulus programs—the top ten economies have already committed $7 trillion in recovery spending, with more on the way—might make it easier politically for governments to introduce new and higher carbon taxes and climate-friendly fiscal policies, perhaps even a global Green New Deal to right past wrongs. But these hopes don’t stack up against the politics unfolding in the real world. Most of the evidence points the other way. Keeping emissions down permanently would require what climate scientists call “deep decarbonization: a massive, long-term investment to shift industry and agriculture away from conventional fossil fuels and production methods. That was always a monumental, though achievable, task. The pandemic will make it much harder.  

INERTIA

The historical pattern of carbon dioxide emissions is not encouraging. Ever since the oil crisis of the early 1970s, emissions have sloped steadily upward, despite periodic recessions that temporarily sapped global energy demand. The first oil crisis spurred major advances in energy efficiency, which helped lower emissions, but it also encouraged many countries to rely more on coal (which most governments saw as more secure in supply), a source of energy so polluting as to cancel out many of the gains from increased efficiency. The second oil crisis, in 1979, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s both played out similarly: emissions plateaued or sank for a while after each shock, only to rise again afterward. In some cases, such as after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, emissions roared back even faster than before. As long as the global economy remains dependent on conventional fossil fuels and high-emission industrial processes, and as long as powerful structural forces drive up demand, the pattern will persist. The economic recovery that follows the current pandemic looks to be no different.

People’s imagination and optimism tend to get in the way of good forecasting. The conditions of today—with everyone stuck at home and holding meetings on Zoom—make it easy to imagine a future with much less high-emission air travel. But history suggests that once incomes start growing again and lockdowns are lifted, people will not remain hunkered down. The higher their incomes, the more mobile people are and the more emissions they cause as a result. The superwealthy don’t stay at home even if they can visit the Uffizi virtually using HD video. They fly to Florence in person. At the height of the first oil shock, U.S. President Richard Nixon told Americans: “We will not have to stop air travel, but we will have to plan for it more carefully.” Little careful planning happened. After the shock subsided, air travel bounced back. Later, the sector was deregulated in ways that created more competition and lower prices, and demand grew even faster.

Now the global economy has plunged into a deep recession. Hard economic times rarely inspire support for aspirational missions with seemingly abstract benefits. The best polling data show that the public does want clean energy—but it also wants cheap energy, and the difficulty of marrying clean and cheap will force policymakers, in the short term, to prioritize one over the other. Before the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis, public opinion was already polarized, with few voters outside a narrow band on the left naming climate change as a top priority. The pandemic will further winnow that community of supporters.

After each shock, emissions plateau or sink for a while, only to rise again.

Governments around the world are pumping money into their slumping economies, but so far they are not spending it in ways that will lead to cleaner energy. In the United States, the current plans stand in stark contrast to those of the 2009 stimulus, which nearly tripled U.S. federal spending on energy-related research and development—most of it focused on making the energy system greener—for more than a year. The single most important innovation program at the U.S. Department of Energy (the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, best known as ARPA-E) got its start with the 2009 stimulus funds, as did many other effective programs to deploy new, efficient technology in the economy. Innovation spending of this kind is essential to cutting emissions, because not all the technologies needed for deep decarbonization yet exist. This year’s government stimulus programs are much larger than their predecessors, but to date, their investment in innovation is practically zero. (Analysts have outlined some pragmatic ways to use stimulus funds to boost innovation, and their proposals might gain traction in the next rounds of stimulus.) 

The United States could not in any case make much of a difference on its own. Global climate change is, fundamentally, a problem that requires international action. The countries that are most motivated to act account for a declining share of global emissions, meaning that they cannot fix the problem by themselves. Instead, they need frameworks that encourage other countries to follow their lead. Yet even before the pandemic caused countries to turn inward, the rise of populism had made building and sustaining such globe-spanning institutions increasingly difficult. The 2015 Paris agreement on climate change, for instance, was already fragile. Later this year, its signatory states are supposed to offer updated plans for more ambitious national efforts to cut emissions. Some countries may still go ahead with this even after the macroeconomic blow of the pandemic, notably in Europe, where commitment to climate action remains robust. But in most other regions, such plans will likely be tabled. The pandemic, put simply, will not do much to help the climate other than temporarily reduce emissions. If anything, the signals point in the opposite direction.

NEW POLITICS, OLD BOTTLES

Political realism is not the same as defeatism. Those who advocate decarbonization have envisioned better futures. Making those visions real will be a matter not of evoking dreamy scenarios but of aligning the opportunities for deep decarbonization with the new politics of the pandemic.

Debates around decarbonization often focus on technological innovation and big-picture policies, such as carbon pricing, and elide the realities of governance, as though one could assume leaders who are skilled, motivated, and endowed with public trust. The pandemic has put such assumptions to the test. In some places—South Korea, New Zealand, Norway, and California, among others—officials have been decisive and relatively effective, at least so far. In much of the rest of the world—including in Italy, in the United Kingdom, and at the national level in the United States—governments have shown themselves less competent than imagined.

Publics won’t sign on to lofty climate goals in the middle of an economic crisis.

The same governments that are flailing now would likely struggle to muster the resources and public trust that ambitious climate action would demand after the pandemic. They will have to carefully align any steps toward decarbonization with what is on the public’s mind: green stimulus must be measured, first and foremost, against the ability to generate quick and meaningful employment. Stimulus proposals also can’t ignore the constraints of working during a pandemic—for example, retrofitting homes with energy-efficient appliances would require workers to enter private homes at a time when people have suddenly become wary of proximity. (That wariness probably won’t abate quickly.) 

The most effective programs will be those that center on industries that already exist, already deliver low-carbon energy services, and are currently stumbling because supply chains have faltered. The solar and wind industries are good examples, as are nuclear plants, which are also emission-free. These well-established sectors can respond quickly if pulsed with cash. Keeping renewable energy incentives in place (and offering something similar to keep nuclear plants open) will help stabilize low-emission industries while reliably employing workers. Washington should also turn tax credits for zero-emission technologies into simple cash payments, as it did during the 2008–9 financial crisis. (A tax credit is useful when firms are making taxable profits but not when the whole economy is in the red.) Such measures are easy to deploy and can help shore up the economy while keeping emissions from spiking, as has often happened during recoveries in the past.

Governments should look further down the line to consider how stimulus money can generate jobs while also putting entire economies on a greener track. One step is to pull dirtier equipment out of service while spurring demand for new gear. After the 2008–9 financial crisis, households cut back on buying new (and thus more fuel-efficient) cars, a slump whose effects can still be seen today. With millions of families in dire straits, investment in new cars is about to drop further. And without any incentives for efficiency, what new cars people do purchase will guzzle gas. (Last month, for the first time in history, trucks outsold cars in the United States.) A cash-for-clunkers program could offer some reprieve, both by softening the blow to the auto industry and by getting cleaner vehicles into the streets. The same can be done for old, inefficient airplanes. So far, however, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has gone the other way and announced a plan to relax fuel economy standards for cars. Lots of other governments are introducing similar regulatory rollbacks, designed to boost industrial activity but liable only to produce unhelpful confusion as firms rebuild their production lines.

One of the hardest tests for politicians will concern the most polluting fuel—coal. Because renewables and nuclear energy plants have low operating costs, they can ride out temporary drops in energy demand. The same is not true for the coal industry, which is poised for big layoffs. Here, the demands of politics and climate action will clash head-on—and leaders must find ways to resist calls for an environmentally disastrous bailout of conventional coal.

LEADERS AND FOLLOWERS

Publics won’t sign on to lofty climate goals in the middle of an economic crisis—but they may well support more pragmatic green initiatives tied directly to economic recovery. If governments are successful on this front, they will gain the credibility they need for more ambitious and effective climate action. So far, the U.S. federal government is performing poorly. Some individual U.S. states are doing better, as are a few governments in Europe and Asia.

The pandemic has exposed a fragmented world, with some governments earning trust and spending resources effectively while others are floundering. And it drives home what has been clear for a long time: serious international action on climate change will not arise from some grand “Kumbaya” moment, in which leaders around the world come together because the novel coronavirus has forced them to shed the scales from their eyes and realize the value of science and cooperation. Rather, the countries that have the wherewithal to steer and rebuild their economies through this crisis will be the ones to lead the coming efforts at environmental reform. They must use their skills wisely to meet a challenge that will not have disappeared. And they must succeed in what could prove the hardest task: getting the rest of the world to follow.

  • DAVID G. VICTOR is Professor of Innovation and Public Policy at the University of California, San Diego, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
  • More By David G. Victor