15.05.2020 : Dr Kate Meyer

COVID-19: A catalyst for sustainable change

As governments invest in stimulating their economies as a post-COVID response, there is an unprecedented opportunity for change. Delivering an economy that simultaneously increases equality and community wellbeing whilst protecting and enhancing our planetary systems is key. What has COVID-19 shown us that we can apply to limit global heating to 1.5°C?

 

What does the science tell us? 

From 2020 – 2030 we need to reduce our CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and industry by approximately 2 billion tonnes every year.

As a result of the global response to COVID-19, carbon dioxide (CO2) by approximately 2.5 billion tonnes. With a decrease of almost 8% compared to the estimated 36.8 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted in 2019, this will be the biggest emissions dip on record. It is also approximately the level of decrease that will be needed every year through to 2030, for us to have a reasonable chance of limiting global heating to 1.5°C.

Unfortunately, the reduction is a result of short-term rather than systemic changes, and there is every reason to believe that emissions will bounce back as things return to normal. However, by taking early and strong action as we move into Wave 3 post-COVID (the rebuilding of the economy), we might be able to squash the emissions curve in the same way as New Zealand seems to have managed to squash the COVID-19 curve.

As governments invest in stimulating their economies as part of their post-COVID response one thing is key - delivering a prosperous economy that both increases equality and community wellbeing, and protects and enhances the planetary systems that we all depend on. Importantly, to have a reasonable chance of limiting global heating to 1.5°C, global CO2 emissions need to halve by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050.

In 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. In this report they identified four “1.5°C consistent pathways that would give a reasonable chance of limiting global heating to approximately 1.5°C by the end of this century. The pathways show there are multiple ways to achieve the 1.5°C goal. However, of the four pathways, the two that focus on immediate and deep emissions reductions were identified as being lower risk and having a higher chance of achieving that goal. They are:

  • Pathway 1 - Low Energy Demand: Achieves low energy demand reductions through a combination of social, business and technological innovations, with afforestation as the only mechanism to remove carbon from the atmosphere and doesn't rely on technological advancements for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).
     
  • Pathway 2 - Sustainability Oriented: Focuses on human development, economic convergence, international development, reduced consumption, low-carbon technologies and well managed land. It relies on both afforestation and BECCS to remove carbon from the atmosphere, but remains within the current estimates for maximum BECCS potential.

The other pathways identified were a "middle of the road" pathway that continues business as usual, with efforts to improve efficiencies; and a "fossil fuel intensive" pathway driven by economic growth. Both delay emissions reductions and instead rely heavily on technological advancements for the removal of carbon from the atmosphere later this century. They also present significantly more risk. Firstly, because they rely on uncertain advancements of BECCS that are beyond current estimates for maximum capacity. Secondly, because even if BECCS capacities are realised, the risk of meeting tipping points and causing irreversible runaway change is significantly higher because the pathways have a delayed focus on reducing emissions.

What these pathways tell us is that the least risky option is to make immediate and deep reductions in CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and industry of approximately 2 billion tonnes every year until 2030. After 2030, reductions can slow slightly, to 1.2 to 1.7 billion tonnes each year until we reach net zero in 2050.  

At a global scale, pre-COVID emissions policies were a long way from aligning with any of the 1.5°C scenarios. Even if Nationally Determined Commitments under the Paris Agreement are met, emissions are projected to be twice what is needed to limit global heating to 1.5°C. If the global shut down in response to COVID-19 only results in slightly bigger emissions reductions than are necessary every year, what does this say about our ability to meet such a challenging target? Will we all need to stay home indefinitely? Do planes need to stay on the ground? What will it mean for the economy?  

It’s important to remember that the projected reductions are based on extreme but short-term changes. Almost three quarters of the reductions can be attributed to reduced air travel and driving. Reductions in the coal and gas industries from electricity and heavy industry this year are expected to be more moderate. One study predicted these industries would decline by 2.3% each. Another study suggested coal demand could drop as much as 8%, but that the decline in coal demand from reduced global reductions in electricity consumption may be offset by recovery of coal demand in China.  

Whatever the case, we will need to significantly change our consumption patterns. However, this doesn’t mean we need a permanent lock down. Before the global response to COVID, if those in the richest half of the world were to reduce their average consumption by 10% in 2020 (compared to 2019), the effect on reduced global CO2 emissions would be similar to the extreme changes we’ve had to make this year. The idea of such a reduction may have seemed quite daunting even a month or two ago; however, as we adapt to life without access to the activities and stuff we’ve become accustomed to, it has hopefully helped many to imagine life with a lighter footprint.  

 

Moving forward– the catalyst for change

The challenge now lies in the need to not just to lock in the reductions from 2020 - we also need to reduce emissions by a further 2 billion tonnes in 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024, and beyond.

In order to achieve this ongoing reduction, we need major, systemic changes that address societal needs while protecting and enhancing our environment; transitioning out of fossil fuels while providing affordable energy, and changing the way we use land while feeding the growing global population are examples of the challenges ahead. Some changes will be able to happen more quickly than others – we’ve seen this with COVID-19 where people rapidly changed to remote working, significantly reducing travel emissions associated with commuting to and from the office. Other changes will take more time. Some changes will be driven by government, others by businesses and others by consumers.

Many organisations have changed at a pace quicker than before, and things that may have seemed out of reach - whether its remote working or technology or digital advancements – may end up becoming the new normal. At Beca, we’re working to identify the key transitions for New Zealand that would set us on a pathway towards zero emissions, while increasing our resilience to the changing climate and addressing many of the other social and environmental challenges such as sustainable urbanisation.

If our global response to COVID-19 shows us anything, it’s that we can be hopeful in our ability to work together to respond to a global crisis. Through a combination of early and strong action from government supported by excellent communication, agile responses from businesses and a high level of engagement, resilience and support from the community, we can make everyday better.

The carbon emissions reductions that have occurred as a side effect of COVID-19 have pointed us at a 1.5°C consistent trajectory. It’s time to take action that keeps us on this trajectory as we adjust to the new normal. In the words of Jacinda Ardern, let’s “go hard and go early”. Let’s not wait until the full force of climate change is upon us before we take strong action. Let’s make this the year we bend the curve on climate change.

About the Author

Dr Kate Meyer

Business Director - Sustainability

Kate is leading our efforts to grow our positive environmental and social impacts through the work we do. She has a strong background in sustainable building design and has led the environmental and specialist engineering design for many award-winning construction projects in Singapore and New Zealand. Kate is also the Founding Director of the Planetary Accounting Network, a charitable trust dedicated to helping people, businesses, and governments operate within the planet’s limits.

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