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Will COVID-19 Be a Climate Change Game-Changer?

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In a year of COVID-19 disappointments and altered expectations, could there be a green side to the pandemic restrictions? Global emissions fell sharply in 2020, but ending climate change will take more than canceled flights.

We drove to work, flew overseas on vacation, took long road trips to see relatives for Thanksgiving. Or at least we did in 2019. Between travel, energy use, and material consumption, the average American’s carbon footprint was 16 tons. It takes over 1,000 trees to offset those emissions.

The United States is one of the heaviest CO2 emitters worldwide, surpassed only by China. This is driven mostly by transportation and electricity, which account for more than 50% of U.S. emissions. Industrial emissions are close behind, responsible for around 20%.

We’ve all had a part in this. Everyday activities from commuting to cooking dinner require carbon. After adopting the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, many nations and individuals committed to a lower-carbon lifestyle to limit global temperature rise. For some people, that meant flying less often. For others, it looked like going vegetarian for some or all of their diet.

As 2020 began, the world was far from reaching that goal. Greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere surpassed record levels in 2019, which was the second-hottest year in history. Like many of the years in the previous decade, 2020 was expected to continue down the slippery slope of higher emissions and higher temperatures.

From Emissions Avalanche to Greenhouse Freeze-Frame

Remember those emissions-heavy industries like transportation and industry? Well, imagine what happened once COVID-related confinement shut down activity in the regions responsible for around 90% of global emissions.

In the first half of 2020, global emissions fell by 1,550 million metric tons. That’s the annual output of France, Italy, the U.K., and Canada combined. Global demand for aviation decreased by 75% and surface transportation by 50%. Power generation and industry declined as well, by as much as a third. Overall global emissions fell by nearly 10% compared to 2019. At the peak of the pandemic’s impact, some regions saw drops of 25% or more.

In Venice, swans returned to the canals with the cleaner air and clearer water brought on by the quiet, quarantined city. Satellite images of China’s most populous regions showed drastic changes in air pollution, shocking researchers as the country instituted strict restrictions. Many people reported an increase in birds and other wildlife when the usual traffic and bustle of everyday life was halted by stay-at-home orders throughout the U.S. and Europe. Suddenly, the world had an idea of what the environment could look like without so much activity – and it looked pretty green.  

While lockdowns and quarantine restrictions kept many communities from their usual activities, it opened their eyes to the potential of an improved natural world. Plenty of people found themselves heading outside, seeking fresh air and relief from confinement. All the while, they waited for “normal life” to resume, complete with commutes, flights, and factories (and all their emissions).

Is It All Good News?

For many areas, including the U.S. and China, the summer saw returns to a semblance of normal life. Restaurants and stores re-opened; gatherings and office work resumed. We had all anxiously awaited that moment, thinking nostalgically about going out to dinner or grocery shopping in person throughout the months of stay-at-home orders. But a return to semi-normal life was mirrored in a return to semi-normal emissions.

In some areas, normal activities resumed as early as May. After China’s historic reduction in the first months of the year, industrial activities in March and April brought increased emissions as the country pushed to rebound. Other countries – particularly heavy emitters like the U.S., India, and Russia – will likely see similar increases when normal activities resume.

Pandemic confinement felt like a life-changing eternity for most of us. But it was hardly the blink of an eye compared to the long arc of a changing climate. Despite the drastic change in our daily life, the overall amount of carbon reduced was very small relative to the amount that has already accumulated in the atmosphere. These reductions will likely cool the globe a mere 0.01 degrees Celsius over the next 5 years. Achieving the U.N.’s goal of only 1.5 degrees of warming would mean replicating this level of decline every year for the next decade.

After months of working from home, the current trajectory will return us to driving the same old cars and their same old exhaust. After delaying our vacations, the rescheduled trips will use the same high-emitting planes and bring traffic back to the same overburdened destinations. Our electrical grid will still largely rely on fossil fuels, and our factories will still produce the same waste products. The sudden drop in emissions during 2020 might have granted us a few extra years before catastrophic temperature increases, but it was far from a silver bullet for climate change.

We’re all looking forward to a return to normal life in the future. But if “normal life” includes going back to the same fossil-fuel-reliant energy landscape, any improvement this year will be reversed.

COVID-19 and Looking Ahead: How Do We Keep Up the Progress?

The best hope for improving global climate change over the coming decades is investing in low-carbon technologies like renewable energy and improved transportation systems. As the world begins to recover from the pandemic restrictions, there are some unique opportunities to rebuild our world in a better way. A low-carbon recovery could cut 25% of emissions by 2030, leading to real progress.

Creating long-lasting improvements in emissions and climate change requires a lot of commitment, even more than months of social distancing. Stemming the tide of climate change means changing some of the fundamental parts of life, from investing in cleaner energy sources to seeking transportation alternatives to fossil-fuel-driven cars and planes.

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