Are lower pollution levels really the silver lining of the Covid-19 pandemic?

By Rob Dellink, OECD Environment Directorate

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to dominate headlines with distressing messages about the negative effects on health and the economy. But sometimes a positive message creeps through.

The long months of lockdown and reduced economic activity have reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants. In many areas, improved air quality has been hailed as a key side benefit of the crisis.

But as economic activity picks up again, are lower pollution levels really the silver lining of the Covid pandemic?

The short answer is no, and there are at least three reasons for this.

First, the reduction in environmental pressures was extremely costly.  The sudden shutdown of entire sectors and decline in economic activity was not related to improvements in the way we produce, or in what we consume. When economic growth really picks up again – and who does not want to start adding jobs again to the global economy? – emission levels will also pick up.

Second, despite reduced environmental pressures in 2020, environmental quality did not improve much. Greenhouse gas concentration levels did not drop – and climate change is driven by concentrations, not emissions. Similarly, as soon as activities resumed air pollution levels shot up again, any reduction in air pollution related illnesses and premature deaths was short-lived. The use of raw materials decreased, not least because construction projects were delayed or cancelled; increasing construction activities is seen as a key driver for resuming economic growth. Land use change was hardly influenced at all, implying continued pressure on ecosystems and biodiversity loss.

Third, while the pandemic will likely have effects on environmental pressures well beyond the coming years, these effects will fade over time. Furthermore, growth rates of emissions, materials use and land use change are projected to rebound fully within a few years.

We can create a silver lining.

The future is of course uncertain, and the link between economic activity and environmental degradation may be weakened over time. But projections with a large-scale model show that with current policies, by 2030 or 2040 the levels of greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions, materials use and land use change may be a few percent below what they would have been without the pandemic (Figure). This is perhaps a sliver of a silver lining, but remember that these long-term reductions come from weakened economic activity, and hardly from adopting cleaner and more resource efficient production and consumption methods.

Effects of Covid-19 on global environmental pressures largely fade over time

Deviations from the pre-COVID baseline projection

Note: Projections of the change in levels for various environmental indicators (GHG emissions, air pollutant emissions, raw materials use and land use change), expressed in deviation from a long-term projection made before the Covid pandemic started.
Source: Dellink et al. (2021).

The big question is whether these projections are avoidable, and the short answer is yes. Many governments are contemplating recovery packages to jump-start the economy. These are vital for economic growth, and for restoring the many jobs that were lost in such short time. But “building back better” means using this opportunity to not simply restore the old economy. It means investing in the transition to a low-carbon economy, in the transition to a more resource-efficient and circular economy, avoiding premature deaths from air pollution, and protecting biodiversity and ecosystem services. The OECD’s Covid-19 policy responses identify opportunities for governments to ensure that lower pollution levels will become a silver lining after all.

Further reading

Dellink, R. et al. (2021), “The long-term implications of the Covid-19 pandemic and recovery measures on environmental pressures: a quantitative exploration”, OECD Environment Working Paper, No. 176, OECD, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/123dfd4f-en.

OECD (2021), “The long-term environmental implications of COVID-19”, OECD COVID-19 Policy Responses, https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/the-long-term-environmental-implications-of-covid-19-4b7a9937/.

OECD focus on Green Recovery: https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/en/themes/green-recovery

2 Comments on “Are lower pollution levels really the silver lining of the Covid-19 pandemic?

  1. It’s so sad what we’ve come to. People aren’t getting as involved as they should when it comes to environments issues. Educating is not enough. Communities are waking up only after it’s late and they feel the effects themselves.

    Like

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