What are the ten new scientific insights on climate change that decision-makers need to know of? That’s a question that Future Earth, The Earth League and the World Climate Research Programme try to answer each year by conducting a horizon scan with contributions from a great number of researchers from across the world.
This year’s edition of the publication 10 New Insights in Climate Science highlights recent advances in the natural sciences on the dynamics of the climate system and the impacts of climate change as well as insights from the social sciences on how society can respond. Three of the insights deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and how this global health crisis is changing the playing field for climate action.
Immediate responses to the pandemic, in the form of lock-downs and mobility restrictions, caused a massive drop in CO2 emissions by almost 9% in the first half of 2020 compared to the year before. Coincidentally, to have a fair chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, reduction rates like this will need to be achieved every year from now on. But reductions due to pandemic countermeasures seem to have been largely temporary; in countries where restrictions have been eased, emissions have quickly rebounded to pre-COVID-19 levels.
This illustrates the magnitude of the challenge we are facing when seeking to avoid catastrophic climate change. While the pandemic put a significant dent in the emissions curve, it is obvious that sustained and effective climate mitigation action cannot be based on confining people in their homes.
Governments across the world are also releasing massive amounts of economic stimulus to limit the negative impact of the pandemic on businesses and livelihoods. This unprecedented spending of public money could help to accelerate the climate transition through conditioned pay-outs to companies and strategic investments in energy-efficiency and low-carbon systems. Compared to the immediate effects of the pandemic, which appear to have been largely temporary, stimulus and recovery efforts could have a much greater and longer-lasting impact on global emission trajectories.
Encouragingly, many governments have declared an intention to “build back better” by supporting a “green recovery.” However, analysis of actual stimulus spending reveals that governments are not yet seizing this opportunity, directing insufficient amounts to low-carbon investments while continuing to fund carbon-intensive activities. Unless strategies for recovery spending are changed, governments risk locking in high-carbon pathways.
Looking more widely, the pandemic has the potential to affect the preconditions for climate action also in other ways. While it is too early to demonstrate such effects empirically, it is possible to identify some possible mechanisms. For example, will the pandemic make it more legitimate for governments to play an active role in directing economies? Will the role of science be strengthened so that leaders are more likely to take advice from the research community? Will citizens’ values have shifted from self-centred consumerism towards shared well-being, social relations, and community-building? Will the pandemic help strengthen global solidarity and facilitate international problem-solving? Such effects still exist only as possibilities and it will take years before we know whether they materialised. But we must remain hopeful that climate campaigners, activist scholars, and others who care about our future manage to make this tragic global crisis a turning point for climate change and sustainability.
Pihl et al., (2021). 10 New Insights in Climate Science 2020 – a Horizon Scan, Global Sustainability, 4. https://doi.org/10.1017/sus.2021.2