Working from home, I look out my window at the altered world. No cars pass for long stretches but walkers are always about, and I hear bird songs I’ve never noticed before. I drive so rarely that I haven’t charged my electric car since mid-March. Of all the changes (many of them painful) brought by the pandemic, road traffic decline might be the one I like most. This quieting down of our engines, it turns out, might also be providing us with a precious gift–a little bit more time to avert the full-scale climate catastrophe we are heading for.
As you’ve probably heard, COVID-19 restrictions have caused a worldwide decline in carbon emissions. According to an analysis by the scientists who track the annual Global Carbon Budget, at the peak of COVID-19 restrictions in early April, global CO2 emissions were down 17%. A whopping 43% of lowered emissions came from road traffic decline. Depending on the lifting of restrictions and our behavior in the coming months, this analysis predicts a 4-7% decline in overall greenhouse gas emissions for the entire year.
Many pundits have already weighed in on the meaning of this carbon drop—some framing the emissions decline as impressively large, others as surprisingly small. But what I see in this pause in greenhouse gas emissions growth is possibility. In all likelihood, this pandemic moment presents our very last real chance to preserve a livable climate.
As a climate advocate, I think a lot about how we might still bring greenhouse gas emissions down fast enough to prevent the full-scale climate catastrophe we are hurtling toward. According to the UN’s most recent scientific report, this requires us to begin steep emissions reductions by 2020 to get on a pathway to 50% emissions reductions by 2030 and zero emissions by 2050. Few people have really taken onboard what this means or what the stakes are. I believe many in the youth climate movement do understand the science and the stakes. That’s why they are so angry and so scared.
Greenhouse gas emissions have been rising 1% per year for the past decade. Now a terrible global event has had the side effect of reversing this upward trend for 2020. This has bought us a bit more time, offering us just one last golden opportunity.
I’m not advocating giving up our modern lifestyles, or living under COVID-19 restrictions any longer than necessary: in fact, just the opposite. I’m searching for a pathway we can take to cut emissions fast enough to have a chance of preventing massive human suffering, preserving modern civilization, and allowing our children a shot at a habitable world.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, tackling the climate crisis is within our technological, policy, and economic capabilities. Advances in clean energy and energy efficiency are continuing to make decarbonizing more feasible and ever cheaper. Capable experts are devising workable plans that combine economic recovery from COVID-19 with rapid decarbonization. Polls show a strong majority of Americans agree it’s time to tackle the climate crisis.
To help this moment become a turning point, we can each stick with those changes that have surprised us by making us happier (for me, this includes less driving, more walking, and giving up the gym). We can advocate for changes in our communities that speed decarbonization and increase well-being (for example, cities making more room for walkers permanent). We can block the bailing out of fossil fuel companies and support clean energy and energy efficiency projects instead. We can give our time, money and votes to elect climate champions in the next election, and each election that follows. Then we can advocate for passing bold policies for a climate-friendly recovery and a livable future.( Here’s one way to help).
This is not a rehearsal. The recovery we choose will determine the fate of our species, so let’s do this!