COVID-19 Reduced Emissions; Can We Keep Them Down?

In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.

Parked airplanes
Parked airplanes.

 Sean Gallup/Getty Images

During a sharp recession when I was working for a real estate developer, he said "Please God, give me another chance, and this time don't let me mess up!" (using stronger language than I can use on Treehugger). Then there is Albert Einstein, who said “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.”

We are in one of those times now with the pandemic, a serious crisis that dialed back the world economy and with it, carbon emissions. According to a new study, global CO2 emissions declined around 7% below 2019 emissions, which is about what we have to reduce emissions by every year to have a chance of keeping the average global temperature rise below 1.5 C.

Annual emissions for 1970–2019 in GtCO2 yr−1, including a projection for 2020 (in red) on the basis of the analysis of the Global Carbon Project1
Annual emissions for 1970–2019 in GtCO2 yr−1, including a projection for 2020 (in red) on the basis of the analysis of the Global Carbon Project1. via Nature Climate Change

The economic crisis caused by the pandemic is different from past downturns because many young and poor people lost their jobs and homes, but many others just stayed home and stopped spending. Since it is assumed that the economy will recover sharply as the vaccines are rolled out, there will be a lot of spending going on, both from pent-up demand from the people who have been saving their money, and from more government intervention to help the people and businesses most affected by the crisis. The report authors recommend that this be carefully directed, noting that "economic stimuli on national levels could soon change the course of global emissions if investments towards green infrastructure are enhanced while investments encouraging the use of fossil energy are reduced."

The authors' recommendations could have been ripped out of the pages of Treehugger:

"...incentives to expedite the large-scale deployment of electric vehicles, and to encourage and make space for active transport (safe walking and cycling) in cities, are timely. Support to improve and promote remote communications for businesses and organizations and regional tourism, in addition to encouraging a return to public transportation as soon as it is safe to do so, could reduce total transportation needs."

They also call for incentives for large-scale rollouts of renewable energy to produce low-carbon electricity, noting that "these measures could curb emissions immediately, minimizing the rebound and building momentum for a change in emissions trajectory in the long term." They conclude on a note of optimism:

"Year 2021 could mark the beginning of a new phase in tackling climate change... The task of sustaining decreases in global emissions of the order of billion tonnes of CO2 per year while supporting economic recovery and human development, and improved health, equity and well-being, lies in current and future actions." 

Glen Peters, one of the authors of the report, gets to the essence of the issue in a tweet: "we need a radical departure from the status quo." And this time, we can't screw up; it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

One might also note that there are opportunities for individuals to make radical departures from the status quo. People are out walking and cycling. At home, they are eating less meat and doing serious home cooking. Urban farms are thriving in the pandemic.

Many believe that there is pent-up demand that might eat into these trends; economist Ryan Avent writes: "People will very probably go out to eat more often than they normally would have pre-pandemic (I’m pretty sick of cooking), see live entertainment more often, and so on. I certainly expect there to be increased demand for many recreational activities: holiday bookings and such."

But who knows, perhaps some of these good habits will stick.

View Article Sources
  1. Le Quéré, C., et al. "Fossil CO2 Emissions in the Post-COVID-19 Era." Nature Climate Change, no. 11, 2021, pp. 197-199, doi:10.1038/s41558-021-01001-0