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Excitement about the Coronavirus’ Effect on Emissions Obscures the Big Picture

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Should individuals collectively decide to make radical changes to lower their carbon output, they—and the economy at large—will suffer. As a result, individuals won’t. And, their individual choices would not be enough, regardless.”

As more than a billion people worldwide stay in their homes amid the most significant pandemic in a century, headlines have been reporting unprecedented drops in carbon dioxide (C02) emissions, as well as the disappearance of smog from major cities such as Los Angeles. Consequently, many have optimistically latched onto the idea that these developments point towards the possibility of a greener post-Coronavirus (COVID-19) society. However, these headlines paint a misleading picture of the pandemic’s impact, and they also expose a long-held tension in the world of environmental activism.

This tension refers to the differing suggested approaches to responding to environmental concerns. Ought we encourage lifestyle changes by individuals that, collectively, might generate the desired environmental impact—or, ought we, as nations and societies, pursue large-scale, structural modifications? Advocates of the former argue that climate solutions can be achieved through a series of individual decisions to curb carbon output. Almost implicit in their argument is that finding climate solutions by any other means would be either immoral, economically suffocating, or both. When it comes to recommended changes that individuals might make to their own lives, these include limiting travel, consuming less red meat, and decreasing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) use. Meanwhile, advocates of structural socioeconomic change sometimes struggle to form a consensus view on the economic impact of their objectives. However, they generally agree that individuals cannot be expected to make short-term personal concessions. Furthermore, even if individuals were to make these significant lifestyle changes, it would still not be enough to effectively decrease C02 output. As such, many of these activists believe that with the correctly implemented set of taxes and subsidies on dirty and clean energy industries, respectively, the transition to a greener economy can be immediately financially beneficial. Others, meanwhile, argue that economic sacrifices may have to be made in the short term—but that the long term economic effects of climate change will be far more costly should changes not be made.

It is predictably difficult to reconcile these stances. In the past, both positions have struggled with the fact that their arguments largely occurred in the abstract, with little material proof for the superiority of one over the other. Then, enter COVID-19.

While government-enforced shutdowns and social distancing measures do not reflect the spirit of the individual approach to climate action, their ramifications closely mirror its effects in practice. And with many around the globe obligated to stay close to home, there is a unique opportunity to observe this theory’s real-world efficacy. The short-term environmental benefits of nationwide stay-at-home orders have been reported on at length, with many mainstream outlets celebrating somewhat superficial victoriesBut should anyone take these headlines as proof of the power of the individual solution, their argument would fail dramatically before even reaching the point of considering the socioeconomic ramifications of confining billions of people to their homes. To this point, the United Nations (UN) Environment Programme’s 2019 Emissions Gap Report shows that in order to limit climate change to less than 1.5º C above pre-industrial temperatures (seen by scientific consensus as a climatic breaking point of sorts), the planet would need to see a 7.6% decrease in global emissions every year this decade. 

In short, it is highly unlikely that even COVID-19 will bring about that change. Recent models have been variable, at best. The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently released its new Global Energy Review, predicting an 8% decrease in global emissions in 2020, thus meeting the United Nations’ target goals. What the Global Energy Review readily admits, however, is that due to the extreme uncertainty surrounding the duration of the crisis (and the efforts to re-open the economy), its prediction comes from a scenario in which:

“…economies currently in lockdown open up only gradually and economic and social activity resumes only gradually. The economic recovery is U-shaped and is accompanied by a substantial permanent loss of economic activity, despite macroeconomic policy efforts […] recognizing the many uncertainties, the report presents one base case scenario and discusses for each fuel the main factors that could raise or lower demand.”

In other words, the IEA’s frequently circulated 8% decrease prediction only comes about with a rejection of a more rapid V-shaped economic recovery, a speedier suppression of the virus, or both.

It claims that even if the pandemic were to last longer than generally predicted—and the global economic recovery were significantly slower than that of China’s over the past month—the environmental impact would be minor.

Meanwhile, other models are less optimistic. The reputable climate analysis website Carbon Brief released a forecast in mid-April predicting an emissions decrease in the ballpark of 5.5%, an impressive number that, nevertheless, falls significantly short of the UN’s 7.6% goal. California-based environmental research center The Breakthrough Institute has an even grimmer projection, suggesting that if the economy were to recover in the second half of the year, global emissions would likely fall between 0.5 and 2.2%. It claims that even if the pandemic were to last longer than generally predicted—and the global economic recovery were significantly slower than that of China’s over the past month—the environmental impact would be minor. The study asserts that, “as a thought experiment, if we assume that the carbon emissions impact is twice the reduction in GDP and recovery is muted, then global emissions would drop by 4.4% in 2020.” As such, only the most optimistic predictions for this year’s reduction in carbon emissions make reaching climate goals appear feasible. 

Even then, relying on a pandemic to save the planet does not seem to be the soundest approach moving forward. The UN calls for a 7.6% decrease in emissions every year. Even if COVID-19 were to persist for several more years, carbon emissions would remain lower, but they would not continue to decrease. Thus, the lifestyle that supporters of the individual environmental ethic call for—even in its most stringent form—fails. 

The last and most important place the argument crumples is perhaps the most obvious, yet it seems to be roundly ignored by those singing the praises of pandemic-era emissions: People are suffering. With many low-income workers furloughed, many people the world over are hungry, unable to pay rent, and afraid or incapable of accessing much-needed medical care. Should the economy stay completely or partially closed (the prediction upon which the IEA’s 8% number largely relies), this suffering will only increase, potentially leading to even more devastating economic consequences down the road. Despite this, many continue to observe social distancing guidelines worldwide. People understand that if they go to work, travel, or engage in any of the economy-boosting activities they would normally take part in, they may bring COVID-19 home to their families, their friends, and themselves. They’re afraid for their lives. However, when the pandemic passes—and government guidelines are phased out—people will not be so keen to confine themselves to their homes, get into their cars only to buy groceries once a week, and to spend holidays inside and away from family members. And why should they? There are places to see, lives to be led. 

Some environmentalists seem enormously naïve about the sustainability of current individual behavior patterns. The Correspondent’s climate writer Eric Holthaus recently responded to the World Meteorological Organization’s prediction of a 6% drop in annual carbon emissions, saying, “This is what ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ looks like,” adding “We’re doing it! It’s possible! […] We can build a better world for everyone out of the ashes of the old one.” While his last statement is perhaps agreeable on its own, it is near-insanity at best amid the context of his entire thread of comments. The world will not continue to “do it” as he incorrectly suggests we currently are (a 6% C02 decrease is both on the optimistic side and not the 7.8% that the planet requires), because it is not, in fact, “possible.” Even now, as COVID-19 cases reach their projected peak in the United States, many are risking their lives to make ends meet, whether it be construction workers, truck drivers, or meat processors. Holthaus is correct on one point, though: This is what rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of a society look like. And it’s not for the better. 

What might be for the better is that the pandemic has taught us something about climate solutions: Should individuals collectively decide to make radical changes to lower their carbon output, they—and the economy at large—will suffer. As a result, individuals won’t. And, their individual choices would not be enough, regardless. Now, this is not to say that a large-scale societal push for a changed individual environmental ethic ought not be pursued. It is likely necessary, and anyone capable of curbing his or her carbon output, through lifestyle changes, carbon offsets, or other means should be fervently encouraged to do so. Every tenth of a percent drop in C02 emissions caused by individual action will decrease the need for potentially challenging structural measures. However, structural measures are, undoubtedly, needed. While many understood this in theory before the onset of COVID-19, the world now knows it in practice. A large-scale structural shift to the global economy is required should we wish to combat the climate crisis, and this includes taxes on dirty energy, subsidies for clean energy—all accompanied by a clear and consistent message on the economic and environmental merits of said changes. 

If humanity is to have a chance on this planet for centuries to come, those favoring the individual approach must recognize the need for policy, while those in favor of large-scale social transformation must remember the effects on individuals alive today.

Because COVID-19 has not only brought forth the realization that individual changes are not sufficient, the virus has also shown that structural shifts to combat climate change will disintegrate if they threaten to devastate the economy. At least as a first step, environmental policy changes should be made with consideration of how to keep their short-term effects net even for the people whom they influence. In a democratic society, any policy that causes widespread suffering—even if it is in the long-term interest of the polity—will likely be voted out before long. For example, it seems roundly agreed upon that investments in wind and solar will result in market growth, that government funded research and development in clean energies will support advancements yet further, and there exists a vastly under-researched economic and environmental potential in nuclear energyMeanwhile, policies that aim to cut major fossil fuel emitters like those of the oil and coal industries are challenging to pass: Negative reinforcement is predictably unpopular and puts workers’ jobs at risk. But they stand a chance at surviving if they’re coupled with positive reinforcement. The proposed Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2019, for example, puts a fee on fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas. In this way, it acts like a normal carbon tax, driving down carbon pollution because energy companies, industries, and consumers will move toward cleaner, cheaper options. What distinguishes this bill from other similar proposals is the inclusion of a “carbon dividend.” It is effectively an emissions-funded universal basic income, wherein money collected from the fee is equally allocated to American citizens to spend as they please. In this way, it’s not really a tax in the traditional sense of the word. While some may pay more on the front end, they can still expect money on the back end. Solutions like these seem to constitute the way forward. 

For better or for worse, the environmental policies needed to save the planet require bipartisan support within the government and in the population at large. And it is now more clear than ever that these changes must carry positive economic implications should they wish to succeed. If humanity is to have a chance on this planet for centuries to come, those favoring the individual approach must recognize the need for policy, while those in favor of large-scale social transformation must remember the effects on individuals alive today. As with any compromise, concessions must be made. Hopefully, though, the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought clarity to environmentalists, economists, and all those in between who seek a path out of the darkness.

Thomas Hochman is an incoming student at the University of Vermont’s Honors College.

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Jon Boote
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Jon Boote

Well said!