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Think the coronavirus crisis is at least good news for our climate? Think again…

Published April 20th, 2020

Less traffic, scaled-down production: coronavirus measures are having a positive impact on our environment. But this is still no cause for celebration.

We are seeing positive environmental effects on almost a daily basis right now: air quality is improving in Germany and other countries that have gone into lockdown. In India, now that the smog has disappeared, the Himalayas can be seen from 200 kilometres away for the first time in 30 years. Animals are reclaiming urban spaces. The water in the canals of Venice is clear and blue. Now that mass tourism has abated, there is less plastic strewn on beaches and there has been a drastic fall in the number of passenger and freight flights taking to the air. Cruise ships remain docked, motorways are free of traffic jams – and Germany will be able to meet its climate targets for 2020 after all.

When everything else is tearing our nerves to shreds, at least it is doing our planet a bit of good – or so you would be forgiven for thinking. Nonetheless, we should take a closer look at this good news. Because, even if these examples can be seen as positive developments, they are only temporary.

Is there any truth about the positive effects on the environment?

Real conclusions regarding the causes of the lower levels of nitrogen oxide in the air can only be drawn with time. This is because it is not just due to the lockdown measures, but also the weather. The smog will return once production has gone back to normal and the animals will disappear again as soon as cities go back to their normal hustle and bustle. The main reason for the clear water in the canals of Venice is that there is no boat traffic stirring up sediment at the moment. Seaside areas will once again be strewn with litter as soon as the tourists return – by which point not one shred of plastic will have decomposed. Needless to say, travel will increase again dramatically as soon as it becomes possible, and with it the nitrogen oxide and CO₂ in the air.

And, incidentally, staying at home also has some negative effects on the environment: even in normal times, video streaming uses up enormous amounts of energy – and, given the number of people self-isolating, working from home and home-schooling right now, this number will be off the charts. Which isn’t such good news for our climate after all.

A respite rather than a solution

What we are seeing here is a respite – not a solution, not a turnaround and certainly not any kind of sustainable climate protection. The effects are a mere product of chance and no reason for us to rest on our laurels, otherwise the environment will be hit even harder after this temporary improvement. And the reasons for this can be seen quite clearly from the 2008 economic crisis. In this case, the scaled-down production also brought about positive effects for the climate until the stimulus packages – for the automotive and other industries – really began to take their toll on the environment.

There have once again been increasingly vocal calls from the German automotive industry to relax limit values for car emissions again and to reintroduce a car scrappage premium. The time frame for the European Green Deal is to be extended and the US Environment Protection Agency is even suspending environmental laws on account of the coronavirus crisis. China has also put back its deadlines for environmental standards and Brazil has announced that it will be limiting its enforcement obligations, which includes protecting the rainforest from deforestation. There are many examples of situations where we are once again in danger of taking disastrous missteps for the future.

What we need is green growth

Even though the thinking about how we can get the economy going as quickly as possible is fully legitimate, our actions today will ultimately decide what kind of a world we will be living in tomorrow. And if we allow our judgement to be clouded by the short-term positive effects and force climate protection to take a backseat to economic considerations, this will have fatal consequences for our environment.

We cannot carry on clinging to past solutions. The restrictions in and threats to our way of life that we are currently experiencing during this pandemic is just a foretaste of what we can expect if we fail to tackle the climate catastrophe head on. Which is why we now need to invest in renewable energies, technological innovations and a fundamental rethink of transportation. One encouraging development is that there are now increasing calls for this from the realms of politics and business.

Lessons from the coronavirus crisis that will help us tackle the climate crisis

Yes, we should be careful with the frequent comparisons currently being made between the coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis. At the same time, the current situation can teach us a lot about making complex issues easier to understand. This provides a fantastic opportunity to explain the climate crisis with the same intensity and perseverance as we are currently doing with the virus. Here, scientists need the same high degree of attention in the media and in political circles if we want to achieve a genuine willingness for change in the mainstream. This is because good political decisions call for expert advice rather than lobbying. And in order for this to be understood, we need to educate everyone.

As well as this, we need to finally see climate protection as a task for society as a whole – and the world as a whole – just as clearly as we do with the coronavirus crisis. We need to understand our role as individuals and also to recognise that this is only possible through political action. We need to make it clear to ourselves that the climate crisis knows no bounds either. For this to happen, we need constant reporting on what will happen if we fail to take action. We need to focus on the climate crisis so that people finally get the message. And above all, we need to stick together – both within our global community and across all generations.

This is because, yet again, the poorest of the poor will be hit harder than the rich. Young people will be affected while the older generation now has the vast bulk of the decision-making power – just as some regions throughout the world will get off more lightly than others. But resting on the laurels of privileges is not only unsocial but also blithely ignores the fact that we live in a globalised world – either we will beat this together or not at all.

We cannot allow ourselves to reach the point of no return

However, the worry is still that we will only understand what the climate crisis really means when we have fallen short of all targets. But by then it really will be too late. We can’t turn around the climate crisis in the same way that we can curb the spread of a virus. With the climate, there is a point of no return, and we have no planet B. The “new normality”, as recently described by Olaf Scholz, doesn’t bear thinking about: hunger, drought, floods, large uninhabitable tracts of land… In the case of the climate crisis, we, the global community, are the risk group that needs to be protected. We have to act now – once it happens, it will be too late.

It’s time to take action. Political action, above all – on the part of each and every one of us. This means, for example, avoiding or minimising CO₂ or at least offsetting it – for example with our Zero account. Or by rethinking our decisions as consumers or investing in green energy projects. There are many ways to make a contribution. After all, we can’t wait until the world has been turned on its head – we have to take steps to ensure that this does not happen. This means that political decisions also need to be taken with regard to the climate crisis. Our society will undoubtedly see them as restrictions, but they will ultimately allow us to live a free, safe and healthy life.

We can still ensure a better tomorrow

If the current crisis has shown us anything, it is how much is possible if the political will to act exists. Which is why we cannot allow the climate crisis to take a back seat but need to make even clearer demands! Especially now. After all, tomorrow will come. The question is: what kind of a tomorrow will it be?

The future can only be rosy if, rather than hurtling from crisis to crisis, we look beyond treating symptoms and get to the root of the problems before they suddenly come out of nowhere and take us by surprise. Theoretically this cannot happen, however, as science has been researching the issue of climate change for decades now. We know what is in store for us. And only we can prevent it from happening.