31-Jul-2020 - Max-Planck-Institut für Biogeochemie

COVID-19 impacts on the Earth System

COVID-19 crisis affects the entire Earth System in unprecedented ways and reveals systemic risks in our highly interconnected world

COVID-19 immediately affects the health, economy and social well-being in our personal lives. Yet, the consequences on the entire Earth System, in particular the ones emerging from the widespread sheltering and lock-down measures, may be much more far-fetching and long-lasting. This has been analyzed in today’s publication in Nature Reviews from an international team of Earth Scientists including Markus Reichstein, Director at Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany. Apart from impacts on each individual’s live, the COVID-19 crisis affects the entire Earth System in unprecedented ways and reveals systemic risks in our highly interconnected world. An international team of Earth scientists concludes that both the immediate and longer-term consequences of COVID-19 may happen along at least two multidisciplinary cascades: The first includes energy, emissions, climate and air quality, the second concerns poverty, globalization, food and biodiversity.

While immediate consequences are dominated by direct effects arising from reduced human activity , longer-lasting impacts are likely to result from cascading effects of the economic recession on global poverty, green investment and human behavior. Such longer-lasting impacts may drastically differ, even in sign, from the short-term effects. While for instance CO2 emissions have slightly declined on the short-term, they may later on either bounce back and even overshoot, or continue to grow more slowly than without the COVID-19 crisis. “This will depend on which decisions are taken regarding the carbon intensity of energy production." explains Markus Reichstein, director at Max-Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany. “Thus is it pivotal to restart the economy in a climate friendly and sustainable way”, adds Reichstein.

The authors of the review further argue that to understand Earth System responses to COVID-19, long-term observations of the atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere are of paramount importance. "Despite the fact that sheltering threatens the continuity of scientific measurements, long-term observations must not be discontinued" adds Reichstein. His Max Planck institute is committed to research on the cycling of fundamental resources like water, carbon, nitrogen and energy. It is particularly well-known for its long-term measurements of greenhouse gases, resulting budgets and associated models.

Understanding Earth System responses to COVID-19 may ultimately help with managing and recovering from this global event. The authors explain that such knowledge may, e.g., enable early detection of hotspots of environmental risk, thus aiding disaster preparedness in different regions, and help to support a sustainable economic, social and environmental recovery.

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