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COVID-19 And Climate Change – Expert Reaction (updated)

With flights grounded and cars off roads, this week has seen historic declines in oil prices.

While reduced emissions from transport may have environmental benefits, the economic impact of lockdown could also hinder climate change mitigation strategies.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the impact of COVID-19 on climate change.

Professor Alan Brent, Chair in Sustainable Energy Systems, Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Globally, the price of crude oil has plunged due to lockdowns and travel restrictions. Standard Chartered has projected a 20% drop in the demand for oil in 2020 from the world’s typical usage of 100 million barrels per day.

“We have yet to see what the real implications will be for New Zealand. However, the Government has not deemed oil production an essential service. Nearly all of the roughly 25 to 30 thousand barrels per day are exported – and therefore not required for domestic energy security, so we can expect that to drop sharply. The major clients of the Marsden refinery, which includes the aviation industry that reduced to a near-halt, have negotiated an around 50% reduction in refining output for the next two months, so we can expect our crude oil imports, of around 105 thousand barrels per day, to also decrease by around 20% over 2020, similar to what is projected globally.

“This means a significant reduction in the use of transportation fuels, which account for nearly 50% of our energy-related emissions. If the projected reduction in oil imports do realise, that could mean a reduction in carbon emissions of around 10%; to levels last seen at the turn of the century. And, of course, carbon emission is but one metric of the environmental performance of the economy. For example, local air pollution levels have dropped significantly since the start of the pandemic.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor C. Michael Hall, Department of Management, Marketing and Entrepreneurship, University of Canterbury, comments:

“COVID-19 will likely have some short-term benefits in terms of emissions reduction in tourism, primarily because of the decline in aviation which is most significant sector in terms of tourism’s contribution to climate change. COVID-19 therefore represents a major opportunity to change the trajectory of tourism’s emissions away from business as usual, but I doubt that this will happen for several reasons.

“Most countries’ bail-outs of airlines are not coming with conditions that would improve long-term sustainability. Many in the aviation industry are pushing back hard against such measures. Even if airlines do go under, the infrastructure remains and, combined with an available workforce seeking employment, you have a recipe for yet further budget airlines moving people around cheaply but without consideration of environmental costs. The majority of destinations desperate to make a quick economic recovery and reduce unemployment will try to get as many tourists through the door as possible – even at low prices.

“A crisis such as this does provide opportunities to rethink tourism. Encouraging domestic tourism, for example, not only reduces emissions but also helps retain money that might have otherwise gone overseas. COVID-19 also highlights the need for the real environmental and biosecurity costs of tourism to be covered by the tourist and business.

“Unfortunately, when you have a crisis like this, we too often find that the more sustainable alternatives that look to provide longer-term economic solutions will be rolled over by the short-termism of Business As Usual because that’s what people know and think they understand. All too often, at times like these, we are dealing as much with a crisis of the economic imagination, and how the economy ultimately depends on social and environmental wellbeing, as we are with COVID-19.”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Simon Hales, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

"Living in 21st century New Zealand, it is easy to lose sight of the reality that human societies are embedded in a planetary ecosystem, upon which all life on Earth ultimately depends. But the Covid-19 pandemic has brought home the fundamental fragility of human societies.

"Global climate change and pandemics share some important characteristics. Both are 'wicked' problems with potentially severe consequences and high policy uncertainty. Both involve delayed effects and the risk of positive feedbacks which demand anticipatory action. In the case of Covid-19, the consequences of a delayed policy response are becoming tragically clear.

"In New Zealand and elsewhere, the degree of public unity in the face of unprecedented restrictions on personal freedoms has been inspiring. We need a similar degree of unity within and between countries if we are to avoid the worst effects of global climate change. This threat has a different timescale, over decades and centuries rather than days and weeks. But as with Covid, our scientific models tell us that a grim future is inevitable if we do not act.

"Existential global threats – poverty, food and water insecurity, pandemics, climate change, biodiversity loss – share underlying drivers. These problems can be addressed simultaneously, but first need to be widely recognized and acted upon. There is hope for a sustainable and just future, but as Covid-19 has painfully reminded us, there is such a thing as being too late."

No conflict of interest.

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