We Are in an Unprecedented Climate Experiment
The pandemic has shut down the most polluting industries around the world and turned us all into more adaptable consumers. That still isn't enough.
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The coronavirus pandemic has frozen the whole world in place as we try to keep ourselves and each other safe. We’re in the middle of an unintentional global experiment that has shut down entire nations and industries. That has put a spotlight on how our personal choices and global systems affect climate change and what we need to do to flatten the curve of emissions.
The coronavirus lockdowns have triggered what is expected to be the largest annual drop in carbon emissions on record: an 8 percent decline globally, amounting to 2.6 billion metric tons of carbon by the end of 2020, according to the International Energy Agency. As we stay at home—especially in developed countries like the United States, which has the highest carbon emission rate per capita—consumer demand for fossil fuels has plummeted. Renewables have eaten oil and gas’s lunch when it comes to rates of energy use. Oil futures went negative in March, after supply began to outweigh demand and available storage. Air travel fell by 96 percent between early March and mid-April (though air traffic fell by only 50 percent, because airlines continued to fly mostly empty planes). Air travel is likely to remain unpopular for the foreseeable future. In other words, quarantine has shrunk our carbon footprint significantly.
But drastic cuts that came from upending our daily lives are still not enough to curb climate change. Even with this year’s unprecedented emissions cutbacks, atmospheric carbon level and global temperatures are likely going to increase again this year. Today’s global warming is the result of past choices: greenhouse gasses stick around and heat up the planet over decades, and the atmosphere can’t create an immediate feedback loop that incorporates our recent cuts. This April was still the warmest on record. According to the United Nations, in order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures (the target of the Paris climate accord, which the United States withdrew from last year), human beings would have to cut emission by 7.6 percent every year for the next decade.
That means we need structural change on an international scale. It’s now clear that meaningful emissions reductions won’t come from personal actions alone or even unilateral change from conscientious countries. But we can use this moment to consider a new path. There is no status quo anymore: the pandemic has forced us, on individual and collective levels, to rethink work, commutes, industry, recreation, supply chains, and urban planning. As we rebuild, we have a chance to do better. Individual actions can still be a big part of creating market and political pressures to reduce emissions. But we also need policy that makes individual action easy and enforces reductions in carbon use in major industries.
So, what can we do to keep these carbon reductions going as the economy begins to open, especially here in the United States? We could begin by examining transportation and electricity production, which, along with industry, are the sectors responsible for the majority of U.S. emissions: respectively, they are 28, 27, and 22 percent of our total, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Each sector could reduce emissions by increasing efficiency and switching to renewable fuel—but we have to create incentives through regulation as well as through consumer pressure. We could regulate dirty industries more tightly, incentivize clean ones to fill the gaps, and give assistance to industries like renewable energy and agriculture that could bring back the economy while doing minimal further harm. Voters have already said they want that.
Let’s start with transportation, since rethinking the way people move around the globe is an opportunity to marry individual action with regulatory power. It would be difficult to wean airlines off fossil fuels, because there’s no energy-dense and sustainable equivalent of jet fuel. But organizations and the government could make plans to meaningfully reduce travel: businesses might commit to fewer company flights (especially now that many offices function through Zoom) if incentivized, and airlines might limit flight traffic and stop running ghost routes if federal assistance stipulated that they do so. As for personal vehicles, which are responsible for about 60 percent of transportation emissions, how about top-down regulations for emission standards and incentives for electric cars, like the Obama-era plan that Trump misguidedly rolled back? Green auto technology is a great way to keep the country healthy as people begin to drive more frequently once restrictions lift. If we couple that with better public transit and streets designated for pedestrians or cyclists in cities, we could meaningfully reduce emissions in our most densely populated areas.
I wish that sustainable transportation policy didn’t feel like a hypothetical situation with a president known to favor industry over sustainability. To give just one example, the Trump administration recently slashed auto emission standards in a way that smashed jobs while also making driving more dangerous and expensive. (Both the EPA and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration opposed the measure, which may be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.) But greening the auto industry is necessary to reduce emissions—we have to keep pushing for it.
Energy use is another area that deserves both individual and regulatory attention. Global energy demand was 3.8 percent lower in the first quarter of 2020 than last year. With lights out in stadiums, restaurants, and office buildings, the coronavirus lockdowns have pushed down the demand for electricity by 20 percent or more. When overall demand is down, it becomes cheaper and more efficient to run renewables instead of fossil fuels—so let’s punch coal, oil, and natural gas-based energy while they’re down and make sure those industries don’t get back on their feet to do more damage.
“Only renewables are holding up during the previously unheard-of slump in electricity use,” says Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency. “It is still too early to determine the longer-term impacts, but the energy industry that emerges from this crisis will be significantly different from the one that came before.”
For the past 40 days, we’ve seen that renewable energies like solar and wind—which are used as baseload power in many places—can take more of a share of electricity without gaps in service. We should lobby to build them up and let coal die. According to the EPA report, those would be the most effective measures to reduce emissions, along with encouraging the industry sector to use greener energy and materials across supply chains.
Do I keep bringing up policy and regulation? That’s because forward-thinking governmental action could make a real difference for long-term sustainability. I get sick to my stomach when I think about how hard that will be to achieve when the defining features of the United States’ current political era are partisan gridlock in Congress and a president with a record of opposing sustainable environmental policies and regulations. The situation would almost feel satirical if people weren’t already dying and likely to continue to die because of it.
But we’re at a climate inflection point. The pandemic has underscored the fact that no one can save the planet alone, because even with a near-total shutdown of transport and industry, we are only barely approaching our climate emissions goals. It’s deadly to inject money into damaging industries to jump-start the economy—that’s exactly what happened after the 2008 recession, and by 2010, global emissions were higher than ever.
We have to support the changes we want to see. They will not happen by accident. But the pandemic will be twice the tragedy if we don’t adapt to its economic and cultural shocks with a better sense of global solidarity and sustainability.
It’s still early in this experiment, but we can learn from it. We have to.