Since lockdowns were enforced around the world in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, PM levels in the atmosphere have taken a sharp dive | Photo: NASA/NullSchool

Can COVID-19 flatten the climate curve?

माटी कहे कुम्हार से, तु क्या रौंदे मोय ।
एक दिन ऐसा आएगा, मैं रौंदूगी तोय ॥

[The Clay says to the Potter that you do not dig and smother me, for one day it will so happen I will swallow you into me]

Saint Kabir, 15th Century Indian Mystic Poet (English Translation Das 2003:21-22)

World Earth Day is celebrated on April 22 every year. The day was first marked in 1970 with an aim to diversify, educate, and activate the environmental movement globally. The Earth Day Network is the world’s largest environmental movement, which operates in 190 countries, and intends to steer positive actions to protect and save Mother Earth. The theme for this year’s Earth Day celebrations is supporting climate action for a zero-carbon future

In 2018, the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways. The report aimed to help decision-makers in their plans to tackle the climate crisis and was in response to the December 2015 Paris Agreement, which marked a consensus among countries to keep Earth’s temperature below 2°C. It has been noted that global warming has already reached 1°C since pre-industrial age and limiting emission goals means a drastic change in policies worldwide, including financial, technological, and capacity building frameworks. Countries agreed in Paris to monitor their climate actions through nationally determined contributions.

Many consider the Paris Agreement to be a failure as most countries are not meeting the target set under the pact. Climate Action Tracker, a scientific body that tracks if global emissions pathways are being consistent with government actions, found that current policies are expected to warm Earth by 2.8-3.2°C by the end of the century. This is because most countries have not updated their targets for 2030 as per the Paris Agreement (see figure below). The scientists, through the IPCC report, warned that global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if countries continue to increase emissions at the current rate. The policies in countries like China, Chile, Argentina, and South Africa, among others, are highly insufficient, while India, Bhutan, Ethiopia and Kenya have policies that are compatible with 2°C warming, the report found.


The big question in the times of COVID-19 is this — can the lockdown help achieve some of the climate actions needed urgently? A recent report shows that more than one-third of the global population is under some sort of restriction. Countries such as India, China, FranceItaly, New Zealand, Poland, and the UK have executed the world’s largest and most deterring mass quarantines. The result may lead to reduced emission because economic activities are at a standstill in many places for the past couple of weeks and it would take at least 2-3 months to go back to emission levels before the quarantine. Scientists have attributed global warming entirely to human actions and related economic activities. Human actions have triggered the alteration in Earth’s atmosphere through contributions to greenhouse gases, aerosols (small particles), and air pollution, among other contaminants. The largest-known contribution comes from the burning of fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide gas to the atmosphere. Climate scientists have repeatedly warned against the possible impacts of climate change such as floods and droughts leading to water scarcity, which would also affect human lives. Countries need to come together and fight the climate crisis collectively. But their continued refusal to cooperate due to various reasons, including individual interests, remains the main obstacle. The UN COP25 climate conference held in December 2019 in Madrid, Spain did not reach any consensus after weeks of negotiations and expenditure that ran into millions of dollars.

The immediate impact of a COVID-19 related lockdown on climate change is reduced air pollution in urban conglomerations. For example, in New York City, air pollution has reduced by 50% . In China, the pandemic has temporarily reduced around one-quarter of the CO2 emissions . Across Europe, emission levels have also fallen.  In India, which is home to 21 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities, air pollution levels have been falling since the lockdown began on March 24, 2020. The water quality of the Ganga has also improved, as per recent reports.

However, climate change is a long-term phenomenon and needs sustained efforts with strong policy actions. The real impact of COVID-19 on climate change will be analysed when the crisis is over. It would be interesting to see what policy choices governments make to recover from the economic loss.

Post the COVID-19 crisis, governments need to also push for cleaner and greener energy sources. Rather than seeing the present situation negatively, one can also see this as a chance to practice a green growth economic model, which could be an effective way to flatten the climate curve without compromising the economic growth. For example, forest restorations itself can fix the economy and brings millions out of poverty in countries like India. Investment in small water-harvesting structures will help billions of farmers in south Asia access water for irrigation and hence boost the economy.

The 15th Century Indian mystic poet, Saint Kabir, in one of his compositions, warned that if we misuse Mother Earth in the way we are doing now, there would be a time when she would take revenge. On the occasion of World Earth Day, what could be a better message than this warning that the saint gave us some 600 years ago. For us to be healthy, we must have a healthy planet. If we mess with Mother Earth, we will have to bear the consequences. Unfortunately, the consequences will be borne by future generations, our children and grandchildren, if urgent action is not taken.