It has to be argued that 2020, despite all the sacrifices it has demanded and the tragedies it has inflicted, could at least mark a turning point in climate change.
It is now possible that global demand for oil and greenhouse gas emissions may have already peaked in 2019, as the pandemic could slow economic growth for years, hasten the demise of coal, and lead to a lasting decline in energy demand through things like continued remote working.
On top of that, a growing number of large corporations and nations, including China, have pledged to cut emissions by mid-century. Joe Biden’s election will place a President in the White House who has pledged to take bold action on climate change. Clean technologies like solar power, wind power, batteries and electric vehicles are getting cheaper and gaining ground in the market.
And in the last days of the year the US Congress managed to authorize (but not yet appropriate) tens of billions of dollars for clean energy projects as part of a coronavirus relief bill. The package also enacted stricter limits on hydrofluorocarbons – very potent greenhouse gases used in refrigerators and air conditioners. (After criticizing the bill as a “disgrace,” President Trump nonetheless signed it on December 27.)
But ultimately reaching a turning point, decades after scientists started warning us of the dangers, matters less than how quickly and consistently we reduce emissions on the other side. And this is where some of the darker signs of 2020 worry me.
Much too slowly
Even though we have reached peaks in emissions, it only means that we will not make the problem worse at an increasing rate from year to year. But we’re only making it worse. Carbon dioxide lasts for hundreds of years in the atmosphere, so each additional ton we emit further exacerbates climate change, promising more or worse heat waves, droughts, forest fires, famines and more. floods.
We don’t need to flatten the emissions – we need to eliminate them as quickly as possible. Even then, we will still have to deal with the truly permanent damage we have caused.
Some argue that the sweeping changes in behavior and practice that took effect as the coronavirus spread across the planet are a promising sign for our collective ability to tackle climate change. This is frankly absurd.
Much of the population has stopped going to work; go to bars, restaurants and theaters; and fly around the globe. Economic growth has plummeted. Hundreds of millions of people have lost their jobs. Hundreds of thousands of businesses have closed for good. People are hungry. And the world is getting a lot poorer.
None of this is a viable or acceptable way to slow climate change. What’s more, all of that devastation has only reduced U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by about 6 percent this year, according to BloombergNEF estimates. Global estimates are about the same. The pollution reductions came at a huge economic cost, ranging from $ 3,200 to $ 5,400 per tonne of carbon, according to previous estimates by the Rhodium Group.
We would need sustained cuts to this level, year after year for decades, to avoid levels of warming much more dangerous than what we are already seeing. Instead, emissions are expected to rebound near 2019 levels as soon as the economy recovers.
It’s hard to show a clearer example of how deeply rooted climate pollution is in even a basic level functioning of our society – and how radically we need to overhaul every part of our economy to start drastically and sustainably reducing. shows.
We need to transform the economy, not shut it down. And this transformation is happening far too slowly.
It’s great news that clean tech is getting cheaper and more competitive. The problem is, they still represent a fraction of the market today: electric vehicles account for around 3% of new car sales worldwide, while renewables have generated just over 10% of the world’s electricity last year.
During this time, we’ve barely started transforming industries that are much harder to clean up, like cement, steel, shipping, agriculture, and aviation. And the ‘net’ part of national and corporate zero emission plans rely on huge levels of carbon removal and offsets efforts that we did not show remotely we can do reliably, affordably, permanently and at scale.
We look forward to free markets launching into non-polluting products. And the lofty mid-century emissions targets that nations have set for themselves don’t mean much on their own. We need aggressive government policies and trade pacts to push or attract clean technology to market and support the development of tools that we don’t yet have or that are far too expensive today.
Getting the United States on track to phase out emissions across its economy will require massive investment, and it must start now, according to a study by Princeton researchers published last month. Over the next decade alone, the United States will need to invest $ 2.5 trillion, put 50 million electric vehicles on the road, quadruple solar and wind resources, and increase the capacity of high-voltage transmission lines. by 60%, among others.
The analysis found that the country also needs to spend significantly more money on research and development right away if we hope to start expanding a range of emerging technologies beyond 2030, like the capture and disposal of carbon, carbon neutral fuels and cleaner industrial processes.
Certainly, Biden’s election is good news for climate change, following the Trump administration’s four-year blitz to unravel all possible climate and environmental regulations. Biden’s White House can make progress through executive orders, bipartisan infrastructure bills, and additional economic stimulus that free up funds for the above areas. But it’s hard to imagine, given the mixed results of the Congressional election and our highly polarized political climate, how he will be able to push through the kinds of tough climate policies needed to get things done at a pace close to the speed needed, like a prize high carbon or rules that require rapid emission reductions.
The good news is that, unlike in the recession that began in 2008, people’s concerns about climate change have persisted in the pandemic and recession, according to vote. But emerging from a year of angst, loss and isolation, I wonder how easily voters around the world will adopt measures that will demand more of them over the next few years, be it a gasoline tax, higher airfare costs or they are told to switch to cleaner electrical appliances in their homes.
Remember that the world – and many of its citizens – will emerge from the pandemic much poorer.
But here’s what scares me the most about what happened in 2020.
Researchers and advocates have long assumed, or hoped, that people would start to take climate change seriously as it begins to inflict real damage. After all, how could they continue to deny it and refuse to act once the dangers are upon them and their families?
But what we have seen in the pandemic does not confirm it. Even after more than 300,000 Americans have died from covid-19, huge portions of the population continue to deny the threat and refuse to comply with basic public health measures, like wearing masks and canceling vacation trips. Despite the waves of infections linked to Thanksgiving gatherings, millions filled the airports the weekend before Christmas.
This in itself is terrifying, but it is particularly worrying for climate change.