By MSH Board Member, Tom Webler.
Originally Published in The Monadnock Shopper News, Green Monadnock column, November 2020.
To slow the spread of the coronavirus SARS-COV-2, air travel virtually stopped and governments around the world mandated people to stay at home. Office buildings were emptied, commuter traffic jams vanished, and some manufacturing facilities paused their operations. People noted that urban areas were quieter, air quality was vastly improved, and even wildlife appeared where it was not noticed before. Some have wondered if these changes would lead to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and possibly slow global climate change?
Answers to that question are emerging but are still tentative and unofficial. It may surprise you to learn that no country monitors greenhouse gas emissions on anything near to real-time. In fact, it takes over a year for a country to certify and finalize its emissions report. In April of this year, the US submitted its official numbers for 2018. This process is slow because the report is based on data and calculations gathered by a variety of government institutions. The EPA is the federal agency responsible for taking all those numbers, ensuring they are accurate, and then putting together the report. The reporting procedures for greenhouse gasses are standardized across countries according to rules made under the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change, a treaty that the US has signed and ratified in 1990. (Incidentally, it was ratified by the US Senate 100-0, back before climate change was political.)
A report by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 2018 suggested that greenhouse gasses were rising so quickly that the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature target agreed to in Paris might be breached as early as 2025. This spurred on the proposed “Green New Deal,” which is not a law, but simply a statement that says we ought to pass new laws to help promote energy efficiency, pollution reduction, and renewable energy (among other things).
Without the official greenhouse gas emission reports for 2019, let alone 2020, it is difficult to say how the coronavirus pandemic affected the world’s march toward global warming. Fortunately, there are a number of organizations and scientists who are working on this question.
One of these groups has estimated that, because of the coronavirus, world daily greenhouse gas emissions declined about 17% in early April. Most of those reductions were due to burning less jet fuel and gasoline. There was also a small decline in the use of natural gas. During the summer, shutdowns ended and greenhouse gas emissions rose as people went back to flying and driving. But, given the resurgence of the virus and the new shutdowns in Europe, it is likely that global greenhouse gas emissions will decline for 2020. This will lengthen the amount of time we have remaining to make the necessary emissions cuts and keep warming to a reasonable level, but at this point in time it’s anyone’s guess is to whether that is weeks, months, or years. Instead of 2025, we may be looking at 2026 or even 2027 as the year when warming exceeds the target set out in the Paris Climate Agreement.
Paradoxically, the shutdowns also led to a decline in the installation of new infrastructure to replace fossil fuels. Electric vehicles sales were down dramatically in the 2nd quarter, as were solar rooftop installations. Overall, 600,000 jobs in clean energy were temporarily lost. These jobs may return as the economy regains traction, but it is not clear if the financing will be available and if consumers will be ready to make the personal investments in clean cars and clean energy. What does this mean for the retirement of coal-fired power plants? There are presently 845 operating in the USA, including one in NH. Coal plants have been closing because natural gas from fracking is so much cheaper. But one recent economic study showed that the coronavirus pandemic has had no effect on accelerating the closure of coal plants.
Taken together, the pandemic is a global event that has impacted the lives of everyone on the planet. It has changed the way that people live, shop, and work. Temporary declines in air and vehicular traffic have produced climate and air quality benefits, but it is too early to know if these will have any lasting impacts on humanity’s march toward warming the planet.
About the Author
Tom Webler is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Keene State College. Originally an electrical and then biomedical engineer, Tom left engineering to pursue public policymaking. He earned a doctoral degree in Environment, Technology, and Policy at Clark University, focusing on public engagement in environmental decision making. He comes to Keene State most recently from Western Washington University where he was a tenured faculty member in the Institute for Energy Studies. But he is no stranger to our region. From 1995-2008 Tom taught at Antioch in Keene.
He joined the Board in 2019 out of a commitment to public service and out of a strong interest to help communities transition off of fossil fuels. Tom believes that the technology and the economics are available to allow us to transition our energy system. What we need is imagination, leadership, and public enthusiasm.
Arora, S., Bhaukhandi, K.D. and Mishra, P.K., 2020. Coronavirus lockdown helped the environment to bounce back. Science of the Total Environment, p.140573. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7323667/
Le Quéré, C., Jackson, R.B., Jones, M.W., Smith, A.J., Abernethy, S., Andrew, R.M., De-Gol, A.J., Willis, D.R., Shan, Y., Canadell, J.G. and Friedlingstein, P., 2020. Temporary reduction in daily global CO 2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nature Climate Change, pp.1-7.
Luke, M., Somani, P., Cotterman, T., Suri, D. and Lee, S.J., 2020. No COVID-19 Climate” Silver Lining” in the US Power Sector: CO $ _2 $ Emissions Reductions Not Statistically Significant, Additional Risk to Coal Generators is Minimal. arXiv preprint arXiv:2008.06660. https://arxiv.org/pdf/2008.06660.pdf
Official UN site where the national greenhouse gas emissions are kept. https://unfccc.int/ghg-inventories-annex-i-parties/2020