Illustrations: Gabriel Gabriel Garble

Is the Coronavirus Really Having a Positive Impact on Our Atmosphere?

Fighting climate change requires long-term policies, not short-term lifestyle tweaks

Over the last two and a half months, fewer cars and trucks have been on the road as millions of people work from home. Office buildings, schools, and factories have been consuming less electricity as government orders have mandated they shut down. And many airplanes have been grounded due to travel restrictions. The result has been a massive decrease in the amount of carbon emissions we’ve produced as a planet.

During the peak of the shutdowns, in April 2020, daily global carbon dioxide emissions dropped 17% compared to April 2019, according to a study published this week in Nature Climate Change. In India and Europe, daily emissions dropped by as much as 26% and 27%, respectively, the international team of climate scientists found.

The researchers estimate a 4% drop in emissions for the year if pre-pandemic conditions return by mid-June and a 7% decrease if some restrictions to movement remain worldwide through the end of the year.

This sudden decrease in global emissions may seem like a reason to celebrate. But most scientists understand the drop as a short-term side effect of the pandemic. They argue government and corporate policy changes are what’s really needed to create a lasting impact on our carbon footprint — and so far they have been largely absent from the United States’ response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Even so, Jayeesha Dutta, a climate justice activist with environmental justice organizations Another Gulf is Possible and the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA), says that there may still be something valuable to learn from the recent burst of carbon-saving lifestyle changes. One of those lessons is that many jobs can be done virtually. If industries shut down their offices, Dutta tells OneZero, it would mean “less of a carbon footprint for people to be commuting to and from an office.”

This has even led to “some reflection” for Dutta and other member organizations of CJA, a group made up of climate justice organizations all over the U.S. and in Puerto Rico, about how often they need to take flights to meet in-person. “Even within our world, we’re having that moment of reflection that’s happening across the board,” she says.

Dutta says she’s also seeing people become more conscious of how their food is produced because the pandemic has disrupted food supply chains around the U.S. The pandemic’s disruption of industrial agriculture, which plays a large role global carbon emissions, has led to shortages of flour, eggs, milk, and meat in grocery stores around the U.S. As a result, Dutta says there’s been a renewed interest in people planting gardens in New Orleans, where she’s based, as people want to have more control over their access to food.

Both of these changes, though, may be “temporary,” as the authors of the Nature Climate Change study say, because they aren’t due to “structural changes in our economic, transportation or energy systems.”

“The social trauma of confinement and associated changes could alter the future trajectory in unpredictable ways,” the researchers wrote. “But social responses alone… would not drive the deep and sustained reductions needed to reach net-zero emissions.”

“Everyone’s seen how dramatically clear the air can get when we shut down our economy, which is a good and bad lesson. I mean, it certainly says that very dramatic changes can happen,” Dan Kammen, PhD, associate professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, tells OneZero. “We’ve seen up to 50% drop in pollution over cities in China and the U.S., but of course we want to do so without killing off economic activity. And that’s really where the renewable story comes in because we’re achieving these cuts at an economic cost.”

The pandemic could be an opportunity to more aggressively pivot to renewable sources of energy like wind and solar, Kammen says, though it would still take some sort of government investment in renewables to make them more affordable. And even if the government were to make such an investment, there’s no guarantee companies would abandon fossil fuels — in order to make the transition, multinational companies like Amazon would need to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

In one promising move, Google recently said it will stop building custom artificial intelligence models for oil and gas companies. But if anything, pandemic-related government policy changes seem to be favoring fossil fuels. The Guardian reported that fossil fuel companies linked to Donald Trump have exploited a change in Federal Reserve policy to get at least $50 million in coronavirus stimulus funding that would have otherwise gone to small businesses. California is in an ongoing fight with the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as the EPA attempts to temporarily revoke the state’s Clean Air Act. And in March, the EPA announced it would waive penalties to corporations and agencies that violate its regulations if the violation is tied to the pandemic.

“I think the throughline between the coronavirus and climate and the economy is the role of government,” says Sofie Karasek, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate action organization. “In this moment, we don’t have a government response that’s adequately rising to the level of chaos that is happening.”

In addition to looking for ways that our collective response to the coronavirus can inform how we respond to climate change, scientists and activists like Kammen, Dutta, and Karasek are advocating for climate change that’s baked into the federal government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis.

Kammen was one of several climate scientists and activists, including Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, to sign an open letter calling on Congress to pass a “Green Stimulus” as part of the federal government’s response to the coronavirus, including policies that would create millions of green jobs and more government investment in solar energy. The CJA and Sunrise Movement meanwhile have endorsed the “Five Principles for Just Covid-19 Relief and Stimulus,” which calls for immediate expansions to federal investments in wind and solar as part of a plan to “tackle the climate crisis.” They want action now that they hope will turn into a long-term response to climate change.

It’s not just climate scientists and activists who are advocating for a green recovery from the Covid-19 crisis — some of the world’s leading economists are, too, arguing that green stimulus packages after the 2008 economic crash created both more jobs and more short-term return on investment than traditional stimulus packages. The European Union, China, The World Bank, and International Monetary Fund are all planning for or calling for some form of green investment as part of the world’s post-pandemic recovery. Yet Republican lawmakers have stymied efforts to include green stimulus investment in U.S. recovery packages so far. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, refused to consider including climate policy in the stimulus bill the federal government passed in March.

Even though the current government isn’t implementing green stimulus measures, climate activists like Dutta believe this pandemic — people seeing the ability of some governments and industries to act to save lives and the inability of others to do the same, and being forced to become resilient in unexpected ways — is going to lead to “a reckoning.”

“Those short-term shifts that people are having to make,” she says, “I’m hoping will have long-term results.”

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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