VICE on Earth Day 2020

COVID-19 Could be the Carbon Turning Point Australia Needed

Here's why it's unlikely we'll go back to living like we were.
April 22, 2020, 2:37am
empty roads
Image by Sean Foster

This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has forced humankind to an unprecedented standstill. The streets are quiet; the roads bare; the skies empty. The air in some places is a little clearer, a shade bluer, than it was before. For the first time in a long time, no one’s going anywhere or doing much of anything at all.

The impact this has had on the economy is well-documented. This week, analysis by the Grattan Institute found that between 14 and 26 per cent of the entire Australian workforce would lose their job—if they hadn’t already—as a result of shutdowns and distancing rules. Globally, the number of people who have had their workplace fully or partially closed is equivalent to 81 percent of the workforce. Countless shops have shuttered their doors and industries have switched off the lights, hammering the global economy.

The World After This

But as global productivity plummets, so too does the use of fossil fuels, which has seen some much-needed reductions in greenhouse gases.

In China, carbon emissions plunged an estimated 18 percent between early February and mid-March, primarily due to falls in industrial activity and coal consumption. And according to a recent study by climate science and policy website CarbonBrief, the pandemic could trigger the largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions—a drop larger than any we’ve seen in previous economic crises or periods of war.

There are concerns that in some countries these pollution reductions may be short-lived, as governments loosen environmental regulations to boost their devastated economies. But for Australia—a nation that currently relies on coal for about 75 percent of its electricity generation—this sudden dip could be the start of a lasting shift in the status quo. As people around the country are forced to adopt new ways of living, working, and interacting, the feasibility of cutting down on unnecessary travel, shrinking our carbon footprint, and gradually decoupling our everyday lives from fossil fuels is becoming increasingly clear.

Sotiris Vardoulakis, a professor of Global Environmental Health at the Australian National University, is one such researcher who believes the coronavirus pandemic has been disruptive enough to alter things long-term.

“Remote working, remote education; less social interaction… People now realize that there was so much unnecessary travel, and that there are technological solutions in place that save time and energy.” he told VICE over the phone. “It will now be increasingly acceptable for people to turn up in meetings electronically rather than in person; employers will realize that it's perfectly feasible and actually good for businesses to reduce the running costs.”

Professor Vardoulakis points out that the current situation has highlighted greener ways of living and functioning as a society—behavioral changes that will enable us to cut down on emissions permanently. Transportation, for example—responsible for around 15 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions—is now virtually non-existent beyond that which is absolutely necessary. The current emissions free-fall can largely be attributed to a lack of cars on the roads and planes in the sky, as people work from home rather than commuting to work and business meetings. And according to Professor Vardoulakis, there’s no reason things need to go back to the way they were.

The technologies we need to cut down on unnecessary emissions already exist—as do renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, that can provide cheaper, healthier, and more sustainable ways of living into the future. Once the pandemic does finally come to an end, experts suggest these technologies could easily allow Australia to reboot its economy while at the same time reducing emissions—as long as the federal government is willing to adapt.

Australia’s Liberal-National coalition has been notoriously reluctant to phase out coal in favor of renewables. A recent report highlighted that this loyalty to coal has placed Australia second to only China in the world for new coal power stations construction proposals. But whether or not the tide of public opinion is enough to sway the government’s position, the pandemic may have the unexpected effect of crippling these industries beyond salvation.

“It may well be that COVID contributes to coal-fired power stations shutting down sooner rather than later,” Alan Pears, a senior research fellow at RMIT University, told VICE over the phone. “Because business activity has slowed, electricity demand has declined… so the coal guys are getting lower prices, selling less electricity, and [that’s] making it harder for them to keep their power stations running.

The modeling supports this view. Recent projections from Australian energy research consultancy RepuTex suggest that “the coronavirus pandemic could help to create a perfect storm for the wholesale electricity market, with the potential for lower demand, lower gas prices and the commissioning of large renewable energy projects to depress electricity prices.”

Coal-fired power stations, like most industries, have slowed in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, Australia’s renewable energy sector continues to grow. When things do start to ramp up again, according to Pears, Australians will be given the chance to reassess what kind of path they want to embark upon.

“Risk and opportunity are two sides of the crisis, and a lot of people will be reflecting on where they want to go,” he says. “As we come out of this, there’ll be solutions that are cheaper and better for us—electric bikes and scooters instead of cars; video conferences instead of interstate flights—and all those things will be accelerated as they would not have been had we not had this crisis. If COVID throws a spanner in the works and people have to adjust, this is the direction they’ll adjust in, rather than going back to the way things were before.”

It’s a small crack of light in a time of darkness and uncertainty: The idea that some of us might reemerge out of this crisis better positioned to tackle the climate crisis than we ever were before. The COVID-19 pandemic could be the shake-up Australia needs to start embracing and implementing responsible energy policies. But for that to happen in any meaningful sense, governments also need to treat the climate crisis with commensurate urgency.

Many nations’ response to coronavirus has, for the most part, been swift and decisive. It is proof that governments have the ability to address serious issues quickly, no matter the short-term difficulties or economic costs. Some experts, like Vardoulakis and Pears, view the effects of this global catastrophe as a learning curve. Others see them as a grim example of things to come. While COVID-19 poses a very real and present danger, the impacts of the climate crisis promise to be even more devastating—and people are desperate for action to happen now, without further delay.

VICE is committed to ongoing coverage of the global climate crisis. Read all of our Earth Day 2020 coverage here.

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