Why your reduced carbon footprint from lockdown won't slow climate change
Reductions in emissions during pandemic are a drop in the bucket when it comes to atmospheric CO2
If you're looking for a silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic, your reduced carbon footprint unfortunately isn't it, climate scientists warn.
Even with this week's climate change study in the journal Nature citing a 17 per cent drop in daily CO2 emissions compared to this time last year, experts caution against the temptation to inflate the significance of a few weeks or months of reduced human activity, at least when it comes to climate change.
"Think about it this way," says renowned Canadian climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe. "We've been putting a brick on a pile every month since the beginning of the industrial revolution.
"Last month we put a 20 per cent smaller-sized brick on that pile that has thousands of bricks already on it. That one slightly smaller brick is not going to make a big difference."
Looking at annual projections for 2020, the metaphorical brick Hayhoe uses to represent CO2 emissions is expected to be four to seven per cent smaller this year than in 2019. Even at a seven per cent reduction, emissions for 2020 will be roughly the same as 2011, says Corinne Le Quéré, one of the authors of this week's Nature study.
Even in lockdown, emissions are high
After a world's worth of cancelled vacations, eliminated work commutes, shuttered business and virtually extinguished social lives, how is that possible?
While the pandemic has led to a temporary drop in emissions related to things like personal transportation, other carbon-intensive practices continue, from supplying homes with electricity, to manufacturing and transporting goods.
If the scenario of a seven per cent annual reduction in CO2 emissions were repeated year-over-year for a decade, it would put the world on track for keeping warming below the Paris Agreement's most ambitious target of 1.5 degrees. But experts say that's not the trajectory they expect post-pandemic, as the economy and society re-open.
"Here's the thing," says Hayhoe. "As the pandemic passes, we are likely to see those [emissions] ratchet right back up again. Why? Because they weren't obtained through sustainable methods. They were obtained through unsustainable methods.
"We can't just shut down the economy, throw people out of work, have everybody stay in their homes. That ultimately causes more suffering."
United Nations Environment Programme executive director Inger Andersen agrees: "We do not want to celebrate the fact that right now millions of people are falling into poverty, that right now children are not going to school. This is a temporary blip with horrific impacts on human society.
"We'll need to see systemic shifts in our energy [use] ... and that is not by locking humanity indoors," Andersen adds.
Economist and veteran climate policy advisor Mark Jaccard says framing COVID-19 as an opportunity to rebuild is misleading.
"We have factories, we have vehicles, we have electricity generating plants and we have buildings, and we're not going to be rebuilding them," the Simon Fraser University professor, and author of The Citizen's Guide to Climate Success told CBC The Current's Matt Galloway.
"We are going to be firing them up again, and so this is a very short-term phenomenon."
"The transition of an economy away from reliance on burning coal and burning gasoline in our vehicles requires a transition of our equipment and our factories, and that can only be a longer-term prospect."
So what's next?
History shows that economic recoveries are often accompanied by emissions growth. Most recently, the financial crisis of 2008 that also saw trillions of dollars injected into economies around the world was followed by a steep increase in emissions by 2010.
The difference since the 2008 crisis, perhaps, is the global awareness of climate change as a threat, with awakenings like the 2018 IPCC report that warned the world had 12 years to limit climate catastrophe, an uptick in climate litigation, and the drastic increase in climate activism.
And there are already signals that this time could be different, with groups like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Energy Association (IEA) calling for stimulus plans to be rooted in clean energy growth and other green solutions.
Early signs show some governments have the same vision. Already, countries like Germany and France are working towards economic recovery packages that will help shift to the low-carbon economy the European Union was pursuing before the pandemic.
Here in Canada, some of the Liberal government's stimulus money is also coming with green strings attached.
"Just because we're in a health crisis doesn't mean we can neglect the environmental crisis," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters April 17.
And groups like the recently established Task Force for a Resilient Recovery in Canada show there will be pressure on governments to remember this.
Projections indicate that renewable energy capacity growth — the construction of wind turbines, solar plants and other installations — may slow this year, after 20 consecutive years of growth, but the IEA also predicts it will rebound in 2021.
Jaccard says the key will be that governments not lose sight of the climate objectives set before COVID-19, such as the regulation to phase out coal plants, the implementation of green building codes, or the incentivization of electric vehicles.
Acting on the science to mitigate climate change will look quite different to the sudden action taken around the pandemic, Andersen adds.
"This should not be a painful transition," she says. "This should be a transition that is well thought out, well planned — not like COVID, which has been a panic.
"We've been discussing [climate change] for 25 years."
While climate is affected by compounding action over decades rather than months, Hayhoe also hopes there is a takeaway as people start looking for correlations between the COVID and climate crises.
"What this has shown us is that it is possible to achieve these reductions," she says.
Now, the challenge will be doing it in a sustainable way.
With files from Adrienne Arsenault