Great question. No one knows the answer quite yet.
What we do know is how previous financial crises changed the pace of carbon emission worldwide. In 2008-09, for example, global carbon emissions dropped by 1.3% due to the 2008 financial crisis. This was a result of lower purchases on a consumer level but also lower business activity as global GDP dropped substantially as well. While the 1.3% drop in global carbon emissions was a silver lining to the other terrible impacts of the 2008 financial crisis, it was unfortunately followed by a 5.9% increase in global carbon emissions in 2010, completely reversing the positive impact from the year before. While the Covid-19 crisis is also causing a financial crisis due to businesses being forced to shut down, the environmental impacts are unclear.
The most prevalent evidence of a drop off in emissions is the reduction of NO2 concentration in our atmosphere overtop of cities during lockdown such as Wuhan. According to NASA researcher Fei Liu, “This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event”. Liu also recalled seeing similar reductions in NO2 concentration during the 2008 financial crisis. However, the observed reductions in NO2 concentration were gradual in 2008 while they have occurred in just days during Covid-19 lockdowns.
It should be noted that reports of localized air quality improving over specific cities are not indicative of the global emissions picture. In a recent report released by the United Nations (UN) Environment Programme, officials stated that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration reached 416 parts per million in April which is the highest concentration of carbon dioxide ever recorded. Even worse, the report states that the carbon dioxide emissions rate has accelerated globally, meaning that the threat of climate change is far from going away.
This evidence indicates that similar to the 2008 financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a drop off in local NO2 emissions due to factories shutting down and road and air travel reducing. While this may present a silver lining to the pandemic, it should not be taken for granted as there is evidence supporting an even more impactful emissions increase just as we saw in 2010. Given that the UN has not yet seen a global decrease in carbon emissions but actually an increase in carbon emissions, the global emissions picture should look more frightening than ever. The resulting impact of businesses attempting to recover from the pandemic at all costs could decrease the probability society has to meet the emissions reductions many countries and businesses pledged to meet to protect the environment. Therefore, it is up to us citizens, business owners, and politicians to take a moment to consider the future impacts that Covid-19 will have on climate change, which too, poses a severe threat to society, business, and humanity.