Climate change is not your fault.
The fossil fuel industry has been spending a lot of money to subtly introduce the idea that if only you, just you, would change your wasteful habits, then maybe climate change wouldn’t be so bad. They started doing it with those benign “Check your Carbon footprint” ads years ago, and it continues today.
But the current crisis has shut down flying, most driving, and kept millions inside their homes, and while we’ve seen lower particulates in the air, leading to those beautiful photos of clear views from Los Angeles to Mumbai, carbon emissions have dropped in only a minor way.
Mute proof of what I’ve been telling people for years. If you and I and our 100,000 closest friends move to the woods to subsist on nuts and berries, the impact on carbon and climate would be minimal to none.
We live in a system that has to end its reliance on burning fossil fuels – that’s it.
In the United States, the fight against climate change is often framed as a matter of individual action toward a collective goal. If only Americans would drive and fly less and consume more sustainable energy and food, then maybe our country could do its part to help reduce carbon emissions worldwide.
The effects of the coronavirus pandemic are a sobering rejoinder to such hopes. With much of the world in lockdown, road traffic and air travel have decreased significantly. The air in major cities like Los Angeles and New York is clearer than it’s been in decades, revealing skylines and mountain ranges previously obscured. We have never had a clearer example of how changes to individual behavior, on a mass scale, can make a real difference. And yet, as drastically as our lives have been circumscribed in recent weeks, new data shows that this would not be enough to save the planet—even if it were somehow sustainable.
Carbon Brief, a website in the United Kingdom, has estimated that the pandemic could wind up cutting global carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 by 5.5 percent—“the largest annual fall in CO2 emissions ever recorded, in records going back to the 18th century.” Another report predicts a 5 percent reduction this year, based on anticipated economic stagnation in the months ahead. Any drop in emissions, which currently aren’t being reduced fast enough to curb global warming, would normally be good news. But with such dramatic changes to the ways we conduct our lives, a 5 percent reduction feels like poor payoff. Climate experts aren’t celebrating. If anything, they say, this comparatively mild and temporary reduction shows how desperately we need comprehensive climate policy—to reduce emissions in a truly systematic, sustainable way.
In order to hit the aspirational target of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) outlined in the Paris Agreement, emissions would need to fall by about 7.6 percent every year for the next decade. Even the 5 percent reduction estimated for this year wouldn’t be enough—and the way we’ve gotten to that reduction is not sustainable in the long term. Although they are necessary to halt the spread of the coronavirus, stay-at-home orders are already affecting the emotional, physical, and financial well-being of millions of people. And, experts say, as soon as businesses begin to reopen, we’ll likely see a push to ramp up production and erase most or all of these environmental gains.
“I think the main issue is that people focus way, way too much on people’s personal footprints, and whether they fly or not, without really dealing with the structural things that really cause carbon dioxide levels to go up,” said Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist and the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City.
Transportation makes up a little over 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. (In the United States, it makes up around 28 percent.) That’s a significant chunk, but it also means that even if all travel were completely carbon-free (imagine a renewable-powered, electrified train system, combined with personal EVs and battery-powered airplanes), there’d still be another 80 percent of fossil fuel emissions billowing into the skies.
So where are all those emissions coming from? For one thing, utilities are still generating roughly the same amount of electricity — even if more of it’s going to houses instead of workplaces. Electricity and heating combined account for over 40 percent of global emissions. Many people around the world rely on wood, coal, and natural gas to keep their homes warm and cook their food — and in most places, electricity isn’t so green either.
Even with a bigger proportion of the world working from home, people still need the grid to keep the lights on and connect to the internet. “There’s a shift from offices to homes, but the power hasn’t been turned off, and that power is still being generated largely by fossil fuels,” Schmidt said. In the United States, 60 percent of electricity generation still comes from coal, oil, and natural gas. (There is evidence, however, that the lockdown is shifting when people use electricity, which has some consequences for renewables.)
Manufacturing, construction, and other types of industry account for approximately 20 percent of CO2 emissions. Certain industrial processes like steel production and aluminum smelting use huge amounts of fossil fuels — and so far, Schmidt says, that type of production has mostly continued despite the pandemic.
In the middle of the pandemic, it’s become common to point to clear skies in Los Angeles and the cleaner waters of Venice as evidence that people can make a difference on climate change. “The newly iconic photos of a crystal-clear Los Angeles skyline without its usual shroud of smog are unwanted but compelling evidence of what can happen when individuals stop driving vehicles that pollute the air,” wrote Michael Grunwald in POLITICO magazine.
But these arguments conflate air and water pollution — crucial environmental issues in their own right! — with CO2 emissions. Carbon dioxide is invisible, and power plants and oil refineries are still pumping it into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, natural gas companies and livestock farming (think cow burps) keep releasing methane.
“I think people should bike instead of driving, and they should take the train instead of flying,” said Schmidt. “But those are small, compared to the really big structural things that haven’t changed.”
It’s worth remembering that a dip in carbon emissions won’t lead to any changes in the Earth’s warming trend. Some scientists compare carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to water flowing into a leaky bathtub. The lockdown has turned the tap down, not off. Until we cut emissions to net-zero — so that emissions flowing into the atmosphere are equivalent to those flowing out — the Earth will continue warming.
Peter Sinclair is a videographer specializing in issues of Climate Change and renewable energy solutions.
Mr. Sinclair produces the video series “This is Not Cool”, for Yale Climate Connections. He has produced more than a hundred videos in the series “Climate Denial Crock of the Week”, a sharply satirical and scientifically rigorous response to the many bits of climate science misinformation, and disinformation, often seen on the internet – which Mr. Sinclair calls the “Climate Crocks – something Rush Limbaugh can say in 10 seconds that takes an honest scientist an hour to unpack”.