Curbing Carbon Emissions: Broader Lessons COVID-19 Can Teach Us

The COVID-19 outbreak has forced much of the world into various forms of lockdown and experts predict a direct result will be the largest ever drop of global emissions. The UN News reports that global emissions have increased by 18% in the last five years and leading climate experts reported emissions have decreased by roughly 6% in the last few months due to the pandemic. Lockdown measures include temporary public space and business closures, as well as restricting unnecessary travel.

As the first country to emerge from three months of lockdown measures, China’s GDP growth is projected to be negative for the first time in modern history. But as restrictions start to lift for almost half of China’s population, industry statistics have started to emerge: Nationwide emissions fell 25% at the start of the year, coal consumption at the six largest power plants is down 40%, and operating rates for main steel products are down 15%. Global efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 through lockdown restrictions will have long-lasting ramifications on economic infrastructure.

This means businesses and factory closures leading to global supply chain disruptions, a decline in demand for imported service, and a halt on travel and tourism globally. The global Gross Domestic Production (GDP) is expected to decline by 2.4% overall in 2020 and the potential for GDP to drop into the negatives during the first quarter is not unlikely according to the OECD Interim Economic Assessment.

Environmental impacts are connected to the economy and countries with the largest GDP may see similar emission reductions to China. In the United States, where infrastructure is largely set up for fossil fuels, the 2008 recession resulted in a 1.3% drop in overall emissions nationwide. With lockdown orders implemented across the country, the demand for products and services that contribute to emissions could remain low depending on how long the outbreak lasts. But with over 6.6 million unemployment cases so far in the U.S., the loss of jobs and wages has fueled a growing fear of economic recession.

It’s difficult to overlook the many disruptions COVID-19 has caused both internationally and locally, but there’s still a chance for optimism that’s worth acknowledging. Many industry leaders believe this is an opportunity for a more sustainable economic reset –– a greener “new normal.” Eliminating fossil fuel subsidies could significantly reduce global emissions, providing opportunities for carbon-conscious industries to increase adaptability for future crises in a more resilient economic system. GreenBiz reports on economic growth potential, explaining that carbon capture technology — or carbon tech — alone is a trillion-dollar opportunity. Other opportunities represent even more dollars; low carbon cities could represent some $24 trillion and climate action to increase resiliency is projected at $26 trillion. Because the drop in global emissions has shown us the positive effects of reducing our carbon footprint, investors may see the benefit of investments that provide both financial and environmental returns.

The economic rebound could show a huge spike in activity and carbon emissions unless the economy is stimulated with a focus on sectors like clean energy. Coal, for example, is the single largest source of global temperature increase. Coal-fired power plants generate 38% of the world’s electricity that could be transitioned to renewable sources and offer an opportunity for sustainable economic growth. The Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance explains, “Renewable energy projects also drive the creation of jobs and can revitalize local economies.”

Because the global supply chain has been so severely affected, manufacturing has temporarily limited materials and equipment needed to expand the renewable energy sector. However, solar energy is thriving in a time when businesses are looking towards more self-sufficiency. The solar company, Smart Energy in New South Wales, reported a 400% increase in customer inquiries since the end of March. Not only is renewable energy more carbon-efficient, but it’s also key for survival — a key motivation behind many consumer purchasing decisions since the breakout of the virus. Shifting behavior and a survival mindset may help catalyze the greater popularity of environmental survival once the pandemic passes.

Even before the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 populations demonstrated they could alter their behaviour for the better of the environment. A 2018 study of e-bikes in Switzerland found that people can sustain long-term changes to previously habitual practices. Current disruptions to our routines and work lives continue to prove that people are resilient and capable of adaptation. Many have transitioned to using digital technology instead of commuting to work. As we continue to navigate physical distancing and beyond, we may see an increase in virtual convenings and employers offering even more options to work remotely, allowing us to sustain some of our minimized impacts on the environment.

As we emerge from the present crisis, upholding commitments to clean energy and the overall reduction of carbon emissions have the power to catalyze a more sustainable economy. Global warming is known to contribute directly to infectious disease emergence, and that means pandemics could become regular occurrences. The drop in worldwide emissions is expected to only be short term unless we recognize the interconnectedness of global warming, economies, disasters, and disease. COVID-19 may be the disruption that revolutionizes the behavior towards a more carbon-conscious economy through much needed collaborative action. Building resiliency and increasing adaptability for climate-related impacts can be top priorities. Most importantly, how we move forward from COVID-19 will set the precedent for how we equip ourselves for future crises.

By Lexi Kaili, Senior Student Fellow

and Bayleigh Whiteley, Student Fellow

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