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Coronavirus emergency spending 'is two years of climate financing’, says climatologist Jean Jouzel

French climatologist Jean Jouzel arrives for a meeting on March 18, 2019, at the Élysée Palace in Paris.
French climatologist Jean Jouzel arrives for a meeting on March 18, 2019, at the Élysée Palace in Paris. © Ludovic Marin, AFP

French climatologist Jean Jouzel says the swift global reaction to the coronavirus crisis may bode well for the climate as well: It shows that in a real emergency, nations have the means – and the will – to act. "It is just as urgent to tackle the climate problem," he says.

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With factories shuttered, airlines grounded and streets cleared in the wake of the coronavirus, there's been a notable reduction in our need for energy from coal and other fossil fuels, both in China and beyond.

Experts anticipate the COVID-19 outbreak will lead to a temporary drop in global carbon emissions but fear the short-term blip could be followed by an aggressive rebound that some are already calling ''revenge pollution'' as activity ramps back up.

FRANCE 24's Mairead Dundas, host of the "Down to Earth" programme, asks leading French climatologist and former vice-chair of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Jean Jouzel whether the coronavirus will lead to any lasting change in efforts to combat the climate crisis.

Is the environment the 'big winner' of the coronavirus crisis?

Yes, in a way the environment is the beneficiary of the coronavirus crisis, but unfortunately only temporarily. It benefits in two ways. Firstly, in terms of urban pollution – this is the case in Paris but also in Chinese cities. And secondly, in terms of CO2 emissions: China usually emits 200 million tonnes of CO2 per week but in the last two weeks of February, it recorded around one-quarter less CO2 [emissions]. So the world avoided 100 million tonnes of CO2 in two weeks.

Can we expect a bounce-back effect in CO2 emissions?

Yes, the problem is the rebound effect when things get back to normal. China is going to start up again very quickly. There's a real risk that the decrease in CO2 emissions that we've seen in recent weeks will be offset as soon as the recovery takes place. This is what happened in 2008 with the financial crisis. Chinese emissions fell in 2008 and started to rise again in 2009. I fear that this will be the same, that when we take stock of China's CO2 emissions over the year 2020 there will be no real decrease. 

Of course, if this health and resulting economic crisis were to continue throughout the year, a 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would have an impact. From a climatologist's point of view it would be substantial, but obviously no scientist hopes this crisis will be significant enough to slow down China's emissions on a year-round scale. 

That said, it is essential in the context of limiting global warming. In order to have any chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C compared to the pre-industrial era, all countries have to halve their emissions between 2020 and 2030, i.e., a decrease of 7 percent each year. And we are a long way from that. 

A lot has been done in just a few days to fight this virus. Should we be doing the same for the climate? 

As a climatologist, what I see happening today represents hope: €45 billion has just been earmarked as economic aid for companies. To achieve the climate transition in France, it is estimated that an additional €20 billion would have to be injected each year. Imagine: What we are doing for the virus is two years of climate financing. We need to devote as much money towards the climate. We do not have this money, we are creating debt. That is precisely what we are proposing with the Climate-Finance Pact with [economist and climate activist] Pierre Larrouturou. Increasing the deficit can be one way of doing things, and this is exactly the approach adopted for the current health crisis. 

Will there be less money now for the fight against climate change? 

There are two ways of looking at it. Either the glass is half empty – we've spent money on fighting the coronavirus, so we won't be able to do it for anything else – or the glass is half full. This shows that in the case of a real emergency, the states – France and Europe – have the means to act. It is just as urgent to tackle the climate problem. This requires investment. If it's available for health problems, which is perfectly normal and indispensable, then the same argument can made for the fight against global warming.

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