As the death toll from the global pandemic continues to increase, one question not being asked is: How many lives will the coronavirus save? The answer will provide the context we need to help avert an even greater loss of life from the coming climate crisis.

Global average temperatures are approaching the critical 1.5 C threshold above pre-industrial levels that many scientists predict will begin to trigger climate catastrophe. This will lead to a growing number of deaths from drought-induced food and water shortages, heat waves beyond human tolerance, flooding, severe storms and new vector-borne diseases.

While it is true the widespread availability of carbon-emitting fossil fuel energy has greatly improved living standards and life expectancies since the industrial revolution, global warming resulting from our carbon-based economies will soon cost more lives than the coronavirus ever will.

Every 1,000 tonnes of carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels results in approximately one future premature human death, according to Prof. Richard Parncutt in a paper published last October in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

If we look at how COVID-19 is impacting three of the world’s largest polluting economies, we are already seeing significant reductions in their carbon emissions.

Strict social-distancing measures imposed by governments in recent weeks have severely dampened global economic activity. A positive consequence has been fewer fossil fuel emissions from manufacturing, power generation and transportation.

China’s carbon emissions, according to regional satellite data and industrial output, are estimated to have fallen by 18 per cent, or 250 million tonnes, between early February and mid-March compared to usual levels. Annualized, this would be a reduction of more than 1.5 billion tonnes.

In the European Union, emissions are projected to be down by 400 million tonnes for the year due to declining power demands and a drop in manufacturing.

In the United States, where transportation is the largest source of carbon emissions, passenger traffic is down by 38 per cent compared to the same period last year. Include reductions in other economic sectors and over the course of a year, the U.S. could see a decline of at least 500 million tonnes of carbon emissions.

If the carbon reductions in these three jurisdictions become permanent, the savings will total more than 2.4 billion tonnes of emissions per year. Add the coronavirus’s emission-stifling effects in other countries, and the world could see emission reductions of tens of billions of tonnes.

Using Parncutt’s ratio of 1,000 tonnes to one premature human death, a global emissions reduction of 20 billion tonnes will annually save 20 million lives.

These numbers provide insight into the scale of human suffering and death that likely awaits us if we return to the business-as-usual trajectory of economic growth of our carbon-driven economies.

Still, it would be ludicrous to suggest we keep our global economies shuttered to prevent future deaths.

But with economic output largely on hold until we get the virus under control, governments around the world now have a unique opportunity for stimulus spending that combines economic growth with acceleration toward a carbon-free economy. Otherwise, emissions will come roaring back as we have seen in the past.

Following the 2008 financial crisis, emissions shot up five per cent above pre-crisis levels within two years after governments pumped billions of dollars into their economies.

Economic growth could just as effectively be stimulated with an approach that values the long-term human health outcomes of a carbon-free economy. For example, financial relief to companies could have a requirement that some of the funds be used to improve energy efficiency or transition to renewable energy, thereby lowering their carbon footprints.

Now is the time to confront the dangerous future that awaits us if we allow carbon emissions to return to pre-coronavirus levels. If the coronavirus itself is what finally gives us the push to accelerate our transition to a carbon-constrained economy, then it will have helped save millions of lives.

By Ian Lipton | Opinion | May 6th 2020 National Observer