For the environmentally conscious, months of lockdown across the world offered a silver lining as carbon emissions and pollution dropped. But though the rate of carbon emissions did decline during the height of global quarantine, the gains were smaller than many assumed – and most of them proved to be temporary. If anything, the lockdown evidenced that drastic individual action, even on a global scale, is not enough to right the course on carbon emissions and climate change.
An international study that appeared in the journal Nature Climate Change looked at emissions between January and early April of this year and compared those findings to average levels during that same time period in 2019. The results show a 17 percent decline in carbon emissions during those first four months of 2020, while predicting a total decline of between 4.4 to 8 percent by the end of the year. This would be the largest annual decrease in carbon emissions since World War II.
However, exact forecasts on the total decline for this year are hard to pin down precisely because the pandemic is proving so unpredictable. And even with the noticeable slash in emissions, 2020 is set to be one of the hottest years on record. This is, in part, due to carbon remaining in the atmosphere for years – and even centuries – meaning that the issue is a cumulative one. Science tells us that some climate changes are already irreversible. But with countries opening and easing out of lockdown, economic activity is set to resume and with it the rise of CO2 emissions.
“People may be surprised to hear that the response to the coronavirus outbreak hasn’t done more to influence CO2 levels,” said Ralph Keeling, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “But the buildup of CO2 is a bit like trash in a landfill. As we keep emitting, it keeps piling up. The crisis has slowed emissions, but not enough to show up perceptibly at Mauna Loa. What will matter much more is the trajectory we take coming out of this situation.”
According to United Nations Environment projections, emissions need to be reduced by 7.6 percent every single year between now and 2030 to keep global temperatures from skyrocketing above 1.5 degrees Celsius. Most scientists agree that remaining below 2 degrees Celsius of warming will allow earth to avoid some of the most devastating impacts of climate change. But staying below that threshold also demands a yearly reduction of 2.6 percent. Keeping citizens in lockdown wouldn’t help those targets be reached, and instead would constitute an unnecessary pain for an insufficient amount of progress.
This year’s carbon reductions were primarily credited to fewer people driving as surface transport activity levels were halved by the end of April. Aviation suffered a larger 75 percent decrease in activity, but the industry accounts for a smaller slice of global carbon emissions, and so was of limited impact. Ultimately these climate gains are likely to be temporary and hard to reproduce because the drop in emissions was derived from forced behaviour in a time of emergency, and not structural changes in manufacturing or distribution methods.
Approximately 45 percent of the world’s carbon waste generally comes from generating heat and power. But this need did not abate during the coronavirus crisis and lockdown, with associated emissions only dropping by 15 percent.
“I can’t celebrate a drop in emissions driven by unemployment and forced behavior,” said Rob Jackson, study co-author and professor in Stanford University’s Earth Science Systems department. “We’ve reduced emissions for the wrong reasons“. Jackson added that “Crises do not solve the climate problem. They buy us a year or two’s worth of time at most.”
“A pandemic is the worst possible way to reduce emissions. There’s nothing to celebrate here,” said energy and climate expert Constantine Samaras of Carnegie Mellon University. “We have to recognise that, and to recognise that technological, behavioral, and structural change is the best and only way to reduce emissions.”
Making a Change
A major contributor to carbon emissions are fuel-powered vehicles, and the pandemic has offered many countries an opportunity to jump-start the electrification of the ground transport industry. Combined with clean energy, real progress could be made to quickly depress the rates of carbon emissions.
Many European nations are working on their own green initiatives. To help boost the economy and become more environmentally friendly, the French government is offering financial aid to any of its citizens who purchase a lower-emission vehicle. This move has the added benefit of boosting sales in a particularly hard-hit industry for France.
As a whole, Europe is pushing to implement a Green Deal as part of their coronavirus recovery package, with an aim of making the EU climate neutral by 2050. Late last month, the EU’s largest economies, France and Germany, pledged their support for a 500 billion euro green recovery initiative that consists of recovery roadmaps for all economic sectors and a minimum price for carbon permits. The Green Deal is part of a larger series of policy initiatives that function under a wide-reaching recovery plan that includes health initiatives and incentives to reform private investment.
The Green Deal also aims to curb pesticide use by half and improve animal health, fertiliser use, and biodiversity as part of a larger “farm to fork” strategy. However, the larger initiative and this specific agricultural policy has faced opposition from the centre-right European People’s party (EPP), the largest in the EU Parliament, which asserts the timing of the policy is particularly bad for farmers struggling to survive the coronavirus pandemic. Experts are expecting unprecedented levels of food waste this year as farms suffer from a shortage of workers to complete harvests. But the smaller Greens party welcomed the move, calling for it to be incorporated fully into EU policy. Overall, more than 100 environmental NGOs and one million European citizens support stimulating the economy through massive green investment efforts.
First launched in December 2019, the Green Deal is a part of the European Commission’s recovery plan, dubbed Next Generation EU, and part of a massive 750 billion euro initiative. This is in addition to targeted reinforcements to the long-term EU budget for 2021-2027. In total, the EU budget will be a combined 1.85 trillion euros.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that “The recovery plan turns the immense challenge we face into an opportunity, not only by supporting the recovery but also by investing in our future: the European Green Deal and digitalisation will boost jobs and growth, the resilience of our societies and the health of our environment. This is Europe’s moment. Our willingness to act must live up to the challenges we are all facing. With Next Generation EU we are providing an ambitious answer.”
Meanwhile EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson called the Commission’s green proposals historic. “With Next Generation EU we can build a green, digital and resilient future for our Union,” Simson wrote in a tweet.
Economic recovery and transitioning to a greener future are needed if Europe is to ensure its success. And despite the significant difficulties that have stemmed from COVID-19, the pandemic also offers Europe the opportunity to wed these goals in a way that would build a more resilient future for all citizens.