When the maps of greenhouse gas emissions in China, before and after the outbreak of the Coronavirus epidemic, were published, some people immediately shouted victory. When traffic stops, when factories stop running, when people are locked in their homes, the air becomes breathable and the climate is better, without delay. It was a life-size experiment in what could be the famous "degrowth" advocated by some environmental activists. But the reality is quite different. The Coronavirus crisis is not good for the climate. It may even jeopardize all efforts made in this area.
It seems obvious: when all human activity stops, carbon pollution of the atmosphere decreases to a great extent. A truism which, by the way, should convince the few recalcitrant climatosceptics of the reality of the anthropogenic nature of climate change. CO2 emissions are falling and have already fallen in the past because of wars, economic shocks and significant drops in activity. However, after the crisis, the economy is recovering and activity is picking up again, as are the curves for greenhouse gas emissions.
No one can wish that the epidemic crisis we are going through will last to reduce the human impact on the climate. Who can wish for the cessation of human activity, confinement, sickness and death? Even the most ardent climate advocates are reluctant to rejoice in this situation.
All agree that the Coronavirus epidemic and the provision of appropriate care must be the top priority at this time.
The threat of losing interest in the climate emergency, lowering our guard or running out of resources to pursue climate-friendly policies is serious for several reasons. Those relating to the economy are becoming the most visible.
The financial market freeze
If the financial markets freeze up, it will become incredibly difficult for companies to get the financing they need to advance existing solar, wind and battery projects, let alone bring forward new ones. Today, governments are trying to support the economy that has been hurt by the decline in activity due to the Coronavirus. Resources are going to help struggling businesses and will go en masse to banks to support activity.
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In addition, the financial markets fear a crash that would result in the collapse of some banks and the installation of the spectrum that haunts all economists, the recession. In this picture, green financing will be relegated to the distant background in favour of rescue measures.
The oil war
The Coronavirus crisis, by the general confusion it produces, creates an opportunity to play twisted moves and to advance pawns on the great chessboard of the world. Earlier this week, world oil prices took a historic plunge. At first glance, this would appear to be a reaction by oil companies to the global downturn caused by the epidemic. In reality, this play on oil prices is a war between the kings of black gold. War between Russia, which claims to be intractable on the production levels of its fossil fuels, and Saudi Arabia, which has embarked on a large-scale price-cutting operation. The price of a barrel of oil had not been so low for a long time. The objective behind de ramdam is also to break the morgue of the Americans who have regained their energy independence by pursuing, against all climatic logic, a sustained policy of oil production from shale gas. An expensive oil, but one that could compete with other sources of supply when prices were high. If oil from Arabia is sold at a broken price, Trump's oil will be penalized and its future threatened. But the Prince of Saudi Arabia and Vladimir Putin have a common goal: to bring down American oil once and for all.
In this brawl, consumers are simply seeing prices at the pump go down. If this trend continues, oil will find itself all the more energized in its competition with electric power. Electric cars, which are already more expensive than fossil-fuel cars, may find it very difficult to sell. So much for the climate. The financiers were not mistaken: Tesla's share price collapsed as early as Monday.
China is the world's largest producer of solar panels, wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles. The Coronavirus epidemic has severely disrupted Chinese production, as everyone can see. Decreased production and disruption of supply channels have gripped the entire industry, especially the renewable energy industry. Economists suddenly became aware of the dangers posed by globalization and the over-implementation of the concept of "value chains".
For the future, we are told, industrialists will be more cautious and will no longer put their eggs in the same basket. But while waiting for policies to change, if they ever do, whole sectors linked to the green economy will be permanently paralysed.Fossil industries that still operate, in the background, the puppet theatre of world politics.The situation could get worse if, by any chance, the Trump administration, as some of its members seem to be advocating, wanted to take advantage of China's weak economic situation to implement additional trade-restricting measures. The supply chains of the clean energy industries would then be permanently doomed to the benefit of the fossil fuel industries that still act as the puppet theatre of world politics in the background.
In recent years, climate change has become an increasingly important priority for the average voter and the driving force behind a growing movement of young activists around the world who are putting pressure on politicians to take serious action for the planet. This is how we have seen in recent elections, particularly in France, the rise of green parties and their seemingly sustainable establishment in the political landscape.
But fears for public health and risks to the economy could distract citizens' attention from climate emergency issues. Voters will focus on their immediate, very short-term interests in health and money, and put medium- and long-term environmental concerns on the back burner.
In addition, managing the Coronavirus crisis requires extraordinary measures that interfere with some of people's essential freedoms. We have seen how China could unashamedly lock up tens of millions of people or use surveillance methods that would make all defenders of individual freedoms stand up in arms. The observers pointed out that these arrangements could only be made in China and would be impossible to replicate elsewhere. However, China's record in fighting the epidemic has been very positive. According to Chinese figures, validated by WHO experts, China has managed to contain if not eradicate the epidemic. It is very likely that other countries will want to replicate this model. Italy is a case in point, having just decided to ban all travel throughout its territory.
All these measures postpone indefinitely all climate change policies.
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Salvation in tech?
If we want to remain optimistic, however, this Coronavirus crisis may provide an opportunity to practice low-carbon behaviour and get used to it. This is the case with teleworking, limiting business travel, distance learning, telemedicine, videoconferencing. On the West Coast of the United States, several major groups (Amazon, Microsoft, Google, etc.) have recommended that their employees work from home, especially in the Seattle area, an American home of Covid-19. In San Francisco, some schools have already warned parents of students that they could provide distance learning courses by videoconference in case of closure.
Virtual reality (VR) companies would like to go even further. While trade shows are being cancelled one after the other, some operators are proposing to replace them with digital conferences. The Taiwanese group HTC thus announced on Friday, March 6 that the participants in its conference on Vive, its brand of VR, could attend via headsets, in virtual immersion. No more travel, no more air travel with a high carbon footprint ... Would the Coronavirus show that it is possible to work differently with, by the way, much less impact on the planet?