Six lessons from an emergency

The COVID-19 crisis has effectively paused human activity across many parts of the world, resulting in flights being grounded, manufacturing and industry halted, and demand for energy reduced. In turn, carbon dioxide emissions have gone down significantly.

So what can the coronavirus crisis teach us about strategies for combating the climate crisis?

Myles Allen is a climate expert and Professor of Geosystem Science at the University of Oxford. In an interview with Jean Sung, J.P. Morgan Private Bank’s Head of The Philanthropy Centre for Asia, he suggests that today’s unique context shows just how much of a role private enterprise can play in the struggle to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and keep global temperatures down.

Based on their discussion, we’ve developed six lessons for tackling the climate crisis. 

1.       Focus on the polluters, not the consumers

“We’ve always talked about the climate problem as something to be solved by changing consumer behavior,” says Professor Allen.  

“If we continue to think we can change the behavior of eight billion consumers, we’ll be in the same position we are now in 20 years' time.”

Professor Allen says that we now need to shift the focus from consumers to the big polluters, with a particular emphasis on the fossil fuel industry, who are by far the largest contributors to global warming. 

Nonetheless, he acknowledges that fossil fuels are reliable and relatively cost effective, and it’s therefore unrealistic to think they will be eliminated before 2050.

Instead, Professor Allen says we need to ensure that the carbon emissions that come from this energy production don’t hit the atmosphere. These solutions exist, but are currently prohibitively expensive if no inducements exist. 

2.       The private sector can lead

By enforcing rules on the private sector, who are the most significant polluters, Professor Allen says we can both cut to the source of the emissions and give agency to some of the best problem solvers we have.   

“We need to make the private sector do what it does best,” he says, “which is finding ingenious, low-cost and efficient ways of delivering value to customers.”

Professor Allen says that reaching carbon neutrality will only occur when we start to engender the notion that it is both unethical and unacceptable to dump carbon into the atmosphere.

Energy giant BP has publicly stated that it is aiming to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and while there are many questions remaining as to how exactly this will be achieved, Professor Allen believes it’s a welcome development.   

“They’re recognising that in order to retain their legitimacy as a global company providing a public good, they’re going to have to address the full consequences of the products they sell,” he says.

3.       This is our 250-year-old problem

We’ve had 250 years of enjoying the use of fossil fuels without considering the costs on the climate,” says Professor Allen, who points out that his home country, the United Kingdom, is one of a number of countries whose prosperity was built on access to cheap fossil fuels.

Cities and industries have grown up with little regard for the fact that one of their major by-products, carbon dioxide, has been disposed of by being pumped into the atmosphere, Professor Allen explains.       

“We’re now essentially going to have to turn around to developing countries and say, ‘Well, within this generation we would prefer you not to be dumping your carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.’”

Professor Allen says that India should be entitled to ask for assistance from wealthier nations in order to tackle the issue. 

4.       Consumers can play a role

Evidently, many of the ‘normal’ consumer behaviors in the west are staggering to people from less developed nations. But it is important to remember that our way of life is also quite dramatically different to how it was just decades ago.

For instance, in the 1980s air travel was a much more expensive activity than it is today, and as a result far fewer people travelled overseas, and they travelled less.

While Professor Allen doesn’t agree that air travel needs to be eradicated, he thinks flying should incorporate the true cost of disposing of the carbon dioxide generated by planes.

“I think flying could go back to 1980s era relative costs without it representing a major imposition on the world,” he says.  

5.       Investors fit into the puzzle

Despite the rise of environmentalism and a growing awareness of the climate crisis, over the course of the last century the fossil fuel industry has been seen as a pretty safe bet for investors, explains Professor Allen.

After all, the world’s energy needs continue to grow, and fossil fuels still provide a cheap solution. 

However, as investors become increasingly uneasy about assets that may be unusable in the coming decades, the industry is beginning to feel the squeeze, says Professor Allen.

“It’s very much in the interests of both the industry and those who invest in the industry to de-risk these fossil fuel assets by developing a means of disposing of carbon dioxide other than dumping it into the atmosphere,” he says. One alternative option involves storing carbon dioxide in deep geological formations underground, a technique commonly known as ‘geological storage’.

“That’s why I think both the industry and its investors have a very important role to play.”

6.       COVID-19 can give us hope

“People are realising just how quickly nature can recover”, says Professor Allen, who points out that with most of the world ground to a halt due to the coronavirus, we’ve seen improved air and water quality in a matter of weeks.

In fact, it’s estimated that the improved air quality in China over the past few months has saved more lives than those that have been lost in the country due to the COVID-19 virus.

While the circumstances that have led to the current shutdown are extraordinary, Allen says that we need to take comfort that as a planet we are able to act drastically when the need arises.

Given the wide-ranging economic, social, and security consequences of the climate crisis - and the clear potential for catastrophe - we need to deploy all of our capabilities to keep the climate safe.

“We’re learning how to flatten the curve in epidemiology,” says Professor Allen, “We now need to start to flatten the curve on global temperatures.”

We’re here to help

Professor Myles Allen and his colleagues will continue to use their expertise to investigate how human and natural influences impact our climate. They welcome opportunities to collaborate and undertake more research, so if you would like to explore this topic in greater depth, please contact your J.P. Morgan team. 

Myles Allen

Professor of Geosystem Science

The University of Oxford

Myles Allen is Professor of Geosystem Science in the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford and Head of the Climate Dynamics Group in the University's Department of Physics. His research focuses on how human and natural influences contribute to observed climate change and risks of extreme weather. He also uses this information to make long-range climate forecasts.

Myles has served on the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), acting as Lead Author and Review Editor on numerous reports. He proposed the use of pioneering tools to quantify the contribution of human and other external influences on climate to specific individual weather events and also leads the world’s largest climate modelling experiment, ‘’.

You can read more about Oxford’s work on the post-carbon transition here.