Perceptions of possible co-benefits - views on the intersection between the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to drastic changes in how we behave and, subsequently, how many greenhouse gases are emitted worldwide. Some people have celebrated these changes, but others caution that climate action may actually become less of a priority in the next months and years.

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Written by Sophie Lohmann and Samin Aref (Laboratory of Digital and Computational Demography, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research) 

In the past years, climate change has become a priority in public opinion as more and more people consider the looming climate crisis (IPCC, 2018) as one of their biggest concerns (Eurobarometer, 2019; Pew Research Center, 2019). In the past couple of months, however, a new crisis has emerged and is now in the center of public and media attention—the COVID-19 pandemic which has, to date, infected at least 2.5 million people (Worldometers, 2020) and impacted over 1000 other individuals per every infected person, leading to over 2.6 billion people who now live under some lockdown or restriction (The Economic Times, 2020). 

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists began studying how the climate crisis and individuals’ actions to combat it could be related to health. In particular, they have found that the same action can have co-benefits on both climate and personal health. For example, eating less red meat may reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Boehm, 2019) and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease (Zhong, 2020), or reducing activities that pollute the air goes hand in hand with fewer greenhouse gas emissions and fewer respiratory diseases (Patella, 2019). Better air quality may also lead to lower severity of COVID-19 outcomes (Wu 2020; Ogen 2020). Another particularly noteworthy co-benefit that has been discussed refers to zoonotic viruses (Carlson, 2020): Already prior to speculations that the new coronavirus may have originated in wild animal markets (Peeri, 2020), scientists had pointed out that if many people reduce their meat consumption, it would also mean raising fewer animals in close proximity to each other and to humans, and therefore fewer meat-borne zoonotic viruses that potentially spread from animals to humans (Bulut, 2019).

In the midst of the current pandemic, many people have reduced their mobility either through voluntary cancellations of short and long trips or through government-mandated lockdowns (Warren, 2020). These actions were intended to lower the spread of COVID-19, but people quickly noticed that they also reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Pollution levels have decreased very fast in most areas affected by the pandemic (Ogen 2020; European Environment Agency, 2020) as airlines have substantially decreased their traffic, many factories have reduced or stopped production, and working and schooling from home have left many streets empty of cars. The European Union’s daily emission has dropped over 58% compared to the period before lockdowns and restrictions (EUobserver, 2020). These extreme reductions of mobility and the curtailed personal freedoms that go along with governmental lockdowns are of course neither desirable nor feasible solutions to the climate crisis, but the observation of sharply falling emissions as well as sharply falling fossil fuel prices (Oilprice, 2020; Albulescu, 2020) have sparked a debate about how, if at all, the pandemic and the climate crisis are related (World Economic Forum, 2020). To explore some of the perceptions on the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, we discuss some example categories of commentaries and social media posts of people who have weighed in on the intersection between climate change and COVID-19. These posts usually fall into one of several different categories including:  

  1. Common causes: COVID-19 and climate are consequences of the same set of human actions (e.g., consequences of capitalism etc.).
  2. Justice: It is the environment that is fighting back and punishing humans by a deadly virus and a changing climate (e.g., “we are the disease”).
  3. Injustice: marginalized populations were least instrumental in bringing about both crises, but experience adverse consequences at higher rates (e.g., people of low vs. high socio-economic status, or people in high-income vs. low and middle income countries).
  4. Denial: conspiracy theories on both COVID-19 and climate change (e.g., both being smokescreens to keep the public busy and afraid)
  5. Hope: addressing the pandemic may spur on climate action, outlined below 
  6. Frustration: addressing the pandemic may slow down climate action, outlined below

Hopeful commentators take the drastic drops in emissions as a sign that climate action is possible and hope that the current changes will usher in the fossil fuel transition (Guardian, 2020). Many of us may have heard environment-friendly changes of peoples’ routines and behavior including how the employers as well as employees might be coming to new realizations of what is feasible. For instance, daily commuters may discover that working from home is not undesirable for them. Some employers may similarly realize that allowing personnel to work remotely does not hurt the bottom-line and many in-person business meetings can be replaced by video-conference calls and other means of online communication including the good-old-fashioned email. Some frequent travelers may now find that many business trips they had gotten used to are not an absolute necessity and may, in part, be replaced by online communications. These insights could lead to a reduced carbon footprint (by a ripple effect of reduced mobility) even after the pandemic is over. Hopeful commentators may also observe how swiftly and decisively many governments are currently taking action to stop the spread of COVID-19 and expect that similarly swift and decisive action can therefore be possible to stop climate change. 

In contrast, frustrated commentators are less optimistic. From this viewpoint, public attention is centered on one crisis at a time, and governmental action is similarly likely to prioritize the “crisis of the day” over other, seemingly less pressing matters (BBC, 2020). With the COVID-19 pandemic currently being the main concern in most countries, possibly followed by executing plans for economic recovery, these commentators raise concerns that the climate crisis and its policy discussions could be overshadowed by this pandemic and the ensuing economic recovery. Many commentators therefore expect the economic downturn on the heels of the pandemic to eclipse climate change in public and governmental attention, fearing not enough attention will be paid to finding climate-friendly ways of addressing the economic recovery. Further, as discussed above, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns have created a natural experiment of unprecedented scale, where many economic activities as well as road and air traffic have seen major reductions, leading to a sharp decrease in emissions. In many places, wildlife has also started to spread into areas which are suddenly no longer crowded with human activity. However, these surface benefits to the environment may not last long and commentators have pointed out that they should not be confused with structural change. In addition, these benefits have resulted from billions of people living under some restrictions, while no climate policies assume having such a level of authority and control. From the viewpoint of frustrated commentators, it is not certain that the power of small actions (UNICEF, 2020) will usher in changes at the global scale that will have measurable long-term effects on emissions.

The current short-term changes in behavior and emissions are inspiring hope that large-scale climate action is just around the corner, but unrestricted hope is likely premature. We do not mean to romanticize emergency measures taken during a pandemic – nobody wants a permanent lockdown. Instead, an intermediate step of climate action will be to find strategies that achieve environmental objectives without shutting down the entire system and massively restricting individual freedom. It is too early to say how the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic recovery will speed up or slow down global progress on climate action, but they may still highlight the feasibility of reduced mobility, widespread individual behavior change, and decisive governmental policy. Experiences with the current pandemic may therefore justifiably convince many people to believe that climate action is possible in the first place.


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BBC (April 22, 2020) Climate change: World mustn't forget 'deeper emergency'

Boehm, R., Ver Ploeg, M., Wilde, P. E., & Cash, S. B. (2019). Greenhouse gas emissions, total food spending and diet quality by share of household food spending on red meat: results from a nationally representative sample of US households. Public health nutrition, 22(10), 1794-1806.

Bulut, E. (2019). Controlling Public Health Risks Posed by Zoonotic Pathogens in Beef Cattle Production Through Consumption of Meat Products and Exposure to Environmental Pathways.

Carlson, C. J., Albery, G. F., Merow, C., Trisos, C. H., Zipfel, C. M., Eskew, E. A., ... & Bansal, S. (2020). Climate change will drive novel cross-species viral transmission. bioRxiv.

EUobserver (April 9, 2020) CO2 emissions from EU plunge 60 percent.

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European Environment Agency (April 4, 2020) Air quality and COVID-19

G-Feed (March 8, 2020) COVID-19 reduces economic activity, which reduces pollution, which saves lives.

Guardian  (April 1, 2020) Will the coronavirus kill the oil industry and help save the climate?

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Ogen, Y. (2020). Assessing nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels as a contributing factor to the coronavirus (COVID-19) fatality rate. Science of The Total Environment, 138605.

Oilprice (April 21, 2020) Are Negative Oil Prices About To Become The New Normal?

Patella, V., Florio, G., Magliacane, D., Giuliano, A., Russo, L. F., D’Amato, V., ... & Bousquet, J. (2019). Public Prevention Plans to Manage Climate Change and Respiratory Allergic Diseases. Innovative Models Used in Campania Region (Italy): The Twinning Aria Implementation and the Allergy Safe Tree Decalogue. Translational medicine@ UniSa, 19, 95.

Peeri, N. C., Shrestha, N., Rahman, M. S., Zaki, R., Tan, Z., Bibi, S., ... & Haque, U. (2020). The SARS, MERS and novel coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemics, the newest and biggest global health threats: what lessons have we learned?. International journal of epidemiology.

Pew Research Center (February 13, 2020) As Economic Concerns Recede, Environmental Protection Rises on the Public’s Policy Agenda

The Economic Times (March 25, 2020)

UNICEF (April 21, 2020) Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic for tackling the climate crisis

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World Economic Forum (April 22, 2020) How our global battle against coronavirus could help us fight climate change (April 21, 2020) COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic 

Zhong, V. W., Van Horn, L., Greenland, P., Carnethon, M. R., Ning, H., Wilkins, J. T., ... & Allen, N. B. (2020). Associations of Processed Meat, Unprocessed Red Meat, Poultry, or Fish Intake With Incident Cardiovascular Disease and All-Cause Mortality. JAMA internal medicine.

Wu, X., Nethery, R. C., Sabath, B. M., Braun, D., & Dominici, F. (2020). Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States. medRxiv.

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Go to the profile of Sophie Lohmann

Sophie Lohmann

Research Scientist, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research

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