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expert reaction to research on long-term impact of COVID-19 on climate

A study, published in Nature Climate Change, looked at the potential long-term impact of COVID-19 on climate.


Prof Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology, University College London, said:

“A new study lead by Piers Forster shows that the cessation of almost all travel around the world during the Covid-19 lockdown will have very little or no effect on climate change.  This is because the travel restrictions were short-lived while global energy production that produces much of the world’s carbon emissions dipped only slightly. 

“But the study does have some good news because if the post-Covid-19 economic recovery focuses on renewable energy and low carbon transport then it could be possible to limit climate change to 2˚C and maybe even 1.5˚C.  But the study has a stark warning which is none of this will be possible if governments choose a recovery with fossil fuel stimulus. This will make the Paris agreement targets nearly impossible and, as shown by the IEA report earlier this year, will create a slower, dirtier, and unsustainable economic recovery.”


Prof Pete Smith FRS, Professor of Soils & Global Change at the University of Aberdeen, said:

“The study shows that COVID-19 restrictions have had a negligible impact on climate, in line with previous reports of the temporary reduction in CO2 emissions showing a strong rebound toward pre-COVID levels. It is how we respond to rebuilding the economy that will determine the long-term impact on climate.

“The study shows that if we try to reboot the economy by incentivising low-carbon technologies, businesses and jobs, we will have a chance of avoiding the worst excesses of future warming, but if we return to pre-COVID business-as-usual, we will have thrown away our best chance of getting the world on track to net zero emissions. We have a small window of opportunity to get this right, and we can’t afford to waste it.”


Prof Dave Reay, Chair in Carbon Management and Executive Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, University of Edinburgh, said:

“This is impressive work. Normally such estimates take years to see the light of day, yet through ingenious use of mobility data from Google and Apple (and presumably an awful lot of home-based data crunching by the research team) this study gives the clearest picture yet on how Covid has impacted global emissions and the implications for climate change.

“That the likely cooling effect of empty roads and skies during lockdown is very small – less than 0.01 of a degree C by 2030 – is unsurprising given the long lifetime of carbon dioxide and the massive pool of fossil carbon already swilling around in our atmosphere.

“Where this study should really focus minds is on what we want to happen next.  Choose a powerful green recovery of renewables and energy efficiency, and there’s an even chance of meeting the Paris Climate Goals and avoid devastating climate change impacts for millions.  “Choose a climate-blind recovery of fossil fuels and high carbon bailouts, and we put ourselves on course for global heating of well over 2 degrees C and imperil generations to come.”


Dr Phil Williamson, Honorary Reader, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, said:

“The analysis by Piers Forster and his colleagues shows that the global economic disruption of lockdown might produce a disappointingly-meagre benefit for climate, with cooling of just a hundredth of a degree in ten years’ time. That result arises because the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere has continued for the past 6 months, although at a lower rate, and could rapidly resume to near-previous levels. 

“But that outcome is not inevitable.  A much more optimistic recovery route is also possible, with the opportunity for greatly accelerated weaning off fossil fuels through the development of low-carbon technologies.  With international and national backing for such a strong green stimulus, the target of global net zero by 2050 then becomes achievable, keeping worldwide temperature increase below the danger level of 1.5 degrees C.”



‘Current and future global climate impacts resulting from COVID-19’ by Piers M Forster et al. was published in Nature Climate Change at 10am UK TIME on Friday 6 August 2020.

DOI: 10.1038/s41558-020-0883-0


Declared interests

Prof Williamson: None to declare

Prof Reay: None to declare

Prof Smith: nothing to declare

Prof Maslin: no conflict of interest


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