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The world slowed to crawl under coronavirus roadblocks, with an impressive side effect: as driving, flying and generating electricity have suffered a major blow, climate pollution has suffered an unprecedented drop.
While this steep decline in projected emissions for 2020 does not save the planet from catastrophic warming, climate experts say investments that use clean energy to help nations' economies recover from this disaster can.
"Getting 33 million Americans out of work and holding 4 billion people around the world is not the way to resolve the climate crisis," said John Podesta, a leading Democratic political strategist who now advises a new initiative called Climate Power 2020, told the BuzzFeed News week. "The reality is that we need to transform the global economy from one that depends on fossil fuels to one that runs on clean energy. This is an enormous task.
This chart, based on a analysis of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions done by the International Energy Agency, puts the projected drop in emissions for 2020 in context. In absolute terms, it is the biggest annual fall registered.
But previous declines triggered by economic turmoil were quickly reversed. In fact, as shown in this graph, after the end of the recession that followed the 2007 global financial crisis, stimulus spending in 2010 generated the largest annual increase in emissions to date.
"What we see is that after a slowdown, in the following year or a few years later, emissions are recovering very strongly," Laura Cozzi, AIE's main energy modeler, told BuzzFeed News.
This animation shows a trajectory for future emissions that would reach the aggressive target set by the nations of the world in Paris climate agreement 2015, limiting the rise in global temperatures to about 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
The IEA projected a 7.7% drop in energy-related carbon dioxide emissions for 2020, which coincides with the annual cuts that experts say are needed in the coming decades to reach the 1.5 degree goal. This path requires a drastic reduction in global emissions to the point that the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is equal to that extracted by forests, oceans and other carbon sinks.
Emission cuts caused by pandemic blockages will not get us anywhere near that. It also gives the clearest indication that measures taken by individuals to reduce their carbon footprint, such as flying less, would never solve the climate crisis. "This is also good, but it is not proportionate to the challenge," Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climate scientist and associate researcher at the Columbia University Earth Institute, told BuzzFeed News by email.
The IEA estimated that energy-related carbon emissions fell by about 5% in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the previous year, largely as a result of decreased fossil fuel use during the pandemic. Coal use has suffered the biggest decline in the world, with emissions dropping 8%; meanwhile, oil emissions fell 4.5% and natural gas fell 2.3%.
COVID-19 blockages were not the only determining factor. A mild winter in the Northern Hemisphere has also reduced energy needs for heating, and there has been a trend from coal to electricity sources that are now cheaper, including renewable sources and natural gas. "So, really, the history of coal is certainly a history of COVID, but it's beyond that," said Cozzi.
A second study published on Tuesday in the journal Nature Climate Change is largely consistent with the analysis of the IEA. Looking at outbreak-related policies and mobility in 69 countries, including the US, an international team of researchers estimated that, at the height of the COVID-19 blockades in early April, daily carbon dioxide emissions were 17% below of the average in 2019. If these restrictions were lifted in mid-June, the annual drop could reach 4%, but if some policies remain in effect until the end of the year, there may be a drop of around 7% in total emissions in 2020 .
In the USA, where more than 90,000 people died of COVID-19, energy carbon emissions are projected to fall 11% in 2020 compared to the previous year, according to a US Energy Information Administration projection. This is mainly due to a predicted decline of 23% in coal emissions and 11% in oil.
While the current drop in emissions is not the answer to the climate crisis, investment in stimulating green energy could be, say climate scientists. "What will make the difference is what governments invest in," Corinne Le Quéré, a climatologist at the University of East Anglia in the UK, and lead author of the Nature Climate Change study, told BuzzFeed News.
At the moment, governments around the world are sending mixed signals about their commitment to using stimulus spending to build a more sustainable energy economy.
In the US, coronavirus-related recovery measures enacted by Congress so far have focused on putting trillions of dollars in the hands of individuals and businesses as quickly as possible to help cushion the impacts of lost jobs.
But lobbyists are beginning to press Capitol Hill for future stimulus packages to specifically accelerate the transition to a cleaner, greener energy economy. Last week, representatives from more than 300 companies had a call with Democrats and Republicans in Congress, advocating that resilience and climate solutions be included in recovery plans.
The federal government needs to invest in state clean energy and climate programs, according to Sam Ricketts, founder of a new climate policy and advocacy group called Evergreen Action. The group, together with Data for Progress, has described how to do this, from investing in low-income home energy assistance and air conditioning programs to financing expansions in state and local public transport systems. States has led the way in the adoption of pro-climate and renewable energy policies. But they also need to steadily balance their budgets, unlike the federal government, and the economic cost of the pandemic is causing budget cuts.
California, a leader in climate efforts, now faces a $ 54 billion budget deficit. In response, Governor Gavin Newsom is now planning to cut spending, including a $ 1 billion loan fund designed to boost green businesses, such as electric vehicle charging stations. The proposed spending on the state's cap-and-trade program would be reduced by more than $ 400 million.
Other countries have already started to double climate action in their recovery packages. In Canada, companies applying for stimulus financing must commit to disclosing how their future operations support environmental sustainability and help meet the country's climate goals. Despite facing one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks, Spanish authorities announced a proposal on Tuesday aiming to reduce its climate emissions to net zero by 2050.
The coronavirus pandemic places the United States at a crucial crossroads to face the climate crisis. The stimulus needed to restart the economy will focus on green energy or a return to increased carbon emissions, blocking the country's response in the coming decades. Climate advocates argue that this fate is likely to be decided by the 2020 elections.
"If you think one of the strategies to get people back to work is to invest in more sustainable patterns of growth, cleaner energy, you will need to argue before the election," said Podesta. "He sets the table for action in 2021".