A Green Recovery from Covid-19 Could Alter the Course of Global Migration

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, national lockdowns and limits on mobility have caused a reduction in global carbon emissions. Given the intimate connection between the adverse impacts of climate change and future patterns of global migration, it is important to ask whether Covid-19 and the economic fallout will have a significant long-term impact on climate change. Ultimately, the lower the emissions globally, the lower the threat of extreme weather events and changes in climate that will exacerbate pressures for people in vulnerable regions to migrate.

The short answer to this question is: no. Unless considered and targeted action is taken to keep emissions down, Covid-19’s impact on climate change is likely to be negligible. Alarmingly, the economic fallout from the pandemic may even cause global emissions to increase. However, depending on action taken by governments, there may be hope for the climate. If a ‘green recovery’ is pursued, Covid-19 could act as an inflection point that puts us on a pathway to emissions reductions.

At the beginning of 2020, global emissions were on an upward trajectory and were projected to rise. However, in the first quarter of 2020 the dramatic slowdown in global economic activity caused a sharp fall in carbon emissions. Road transport globally had fallen by almost 50% as of March 2020, while global aviation had fallen by 60%. Industrial output was also down. As a result, there was a substantial decline in the global consumption of fossil fuel, with oil demand witnessing a record drop of over 20 million barrels per day in April 2020. Correspondingly, global CO2 emissions fell by an estimated 17% in early April 2020 during peak lockdown.

Despite these dramatic figures, projections have suggested that overall global CO2 emissions in 2020 will see a reduction of between only 4% and 7%, which is expected to impact the rate of increase in concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere only slightly. Given that our energy system is still largely reliant on coal, oil and gas to power our global economy, a swift return to pre–Covid-19 emissions levels can be expected as economies rebuild, including a return to the same upward trajectory of emissions growth.

The current economic crisis, however, has created an opportunity for change. Action taken to address the economic recovery could substantially influence the long-term rise or fall of global emissions. If certain environmental regulations are lifted in order to kick-start economic growth, such as industrial pollution controls or vehicle emissions standards, emissions will increase, but if substantial investment is channeled towards a green recovery with significant action to phase out fossil fuels, a pathway to sustained emissions reductions can be expected.

The EU has shown signs of action, with a proposal to improve its emissions reductions target from 40% to 55% by 2030 currently under discussion. The outcome of the US election will also be of paramount importance to the direction of global climate policy over the next four years. To ensure global emissions do not rise more than 2° C above pre-industrial levels (the target of the 2015 Paris Agreement), sustained emissions cuts of 3% per year would be needed between 2020 and 2030. Cuts of 7% per year would be needed to reach the 1.5° C target. If this is not achieved, there is little doubt that climate-induced migration will rise dramatically in the coming decades.

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