COVID-19 and Climate Change: A Q&A with Geographer Seth Wynes

COVID-19 has disrupted our consumption and transportation habits, forcing people around the world to cut down on flying, driving, and other carbon-emitting behaviours.

As a result, pollution has fallen to remarkably low levels in many places. The outbreak has also decimated carbon-intensive industries like aviation and the oil sector.

What does all this mean for climate change?

We spoke to Seth Wynes, a UBC geographer who specializes in climate change mitigation, to ask whether COVID-19 will have long-lasting impacts on the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and how governments should consider climate goals as they work on rebooting their economies.

The COVID-19 outbreak has forced people around the world to cut down on carbon-emitting actions like flying and commuting. Do you think this could alter people’s work and transportation habits in the long-term?

Seth Wynes

We’ve changed a lot of behaviours in response to this pandemic, and it makes sense to expect that some of these shifts will stick, but we don’t know which ones. Businesses that previously viewed telecommuting as impossible may suddenly realize that it’s a great cost-saving measure and cut their office space in half. Individuals who bought a bag of lentils for the first time may discover a cheap, healthy meal that lets them cut back on weekly meat purchases.

At the same time, people who switched from public transit to personal vehicles for their own safety might stick with that choice. Travel behaviors are especially habitual, but when the habits are interrupted there is room for change.

As a researcher, it will be interesting to see how academics respond. Many conferences have been postponed while some are making the leap to online platforms. If conference organizers invest in virtual conferencing resources they may be more willing to offer digital participation in the future. That would be good for the climate, as well as for researchers who have trouble travelling due to disabilities or family obligations.

What impact has COVID-19 had on the world’s carbon footprint?

Because people are flying less, driving less, and industry is producing less, the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are decreasing. Emissions temporarily dropped in China by an estimated 25%. But in the past, economic downturns have been quickly followed by a return to normal, increasing rates of emissions. Unless governments implement new policies to stop that, we should expect the same.

What can governments do to encourage longer-term shifts towards climate-friendly individual behaviours and actions?

Governments that want to encourage longer-term shifts that are healthier and more sustainable need to support people in making the right choice. Both biking and driving are less likely to spread sickness during the pandemic, but an e-bike rebate program might incentivize people to make a choice that is healthier for them and the planet in the long term. Cities that increase temporary bike lanes should consider keeping them.

Airlines around the globe have been requesting government bailouts as they struggle with massive revenue loss related to COVID-19.  How should governments respond to this?

Air travel is already heavily subsidized by the government. Not just through low or non-existent taxes on jet fuel, but through public infrastructure as well — think of the Canada Line providing cheap transport to and from Vancouver airport. Since most people who fly are well off, this is a regressive subsidy: most of the benefits go to the wealthy while everyone else shares harms like air pollution.

If governments decide to bail out the airline industry they should make sure that they get large concessions in return that will benefit society – like strong fuel economy standards for aircraft, greater investments in alternative jet fuels, and carbon labels on tickets so that consumers can choose the most efficient route or airline.

As governments rebuild their economies, what should they do to keep climate goals in mind?

Initial investments are going to focus on unemployed workers, protecting renters and so forth. But eventually social distancing rules will be relaxed and governments will need to restart their economies. At that point there will be an opportunity to choose where to invest public money. Governments can lock in emissions growth by spending on more roadways and fossil fuel infrastructure, or they can spend on renewables, high-speed rail and home energy retrofits. Those decisions will have huge consequences going forward.

For instance, adding more highways incentivizes personal vehicle purchases, which locks a region into a mode of transport that is very high in energy consumption for decades to come. High-speed rail, on the other hand, would not only reduce the need for long car trips but also the demand for more flights.

We are in a crucial window of time where we can decide what kind of future we will live in, and it’s important that we choose one where the atmosphere is compatible with human well‑being.

Seth Wynes is a PhD student at UBC who studies what individuals and institutions can do to mitigate climate change. He is the author of SOS: What you can do to reduce climate change.

 Learn more about his research in our July 2019 story: How to reduce your carbon footprint.”