Environmental enthusiasts typically spend Earth Day out of doors, celebrating our natural home and raising awareness about our responsibility to protect it. However, this year, COVID-19 has turned environmentalists indoors and online. This is, of course, tragic for a few reasons. First, large gatherings have a better chance to spread interest and attract passersby than a video conference call. Second, retreating indoors leads to a wider “out of sight, out of mind” effect in the larger collective conscious. Lastly, the fight to preserve our planet can become tiring. Large in-person events can reignite a lagging passion in a way that a Zoom call cannot.
But even if people were out for the annual events, environmental concerns would take, and have taken, a back seat to the current global pandemic. But that comes as no surprise. We have not faced a threat like this in a century and poor leadership has made a bad situation worse. Furthermore, overcrowded hospitals and an increasing death count are easier to see and are more sensational than the slow degradation of microscopic, though essential, eco-systems. However, we must resist our natural inclination to separate these challenges. For those asking if COVID-19 is Mother Nature’s way of telling us something, it is. But mass infection and death are just her latest in a long line of gentle reminders including floods, wildfires, hurricanes, typhoons, and species extinction. Indeed, humans are the common link between increased climate-related disasters and a global pandemic.
We Are the Problem As Stewart Patrick lays out in a great article for World Politics Review, our continued resource extraction, agricultural practices, and overall consumption have produced a level of environmental degradation ideal for the birth of a virus like COVID-19. Add our pervasive meat consumption and the accompanying unsanitary conditions, and you have a breeding ground for zoonoses, pathogens developed in and initially introduced to the wider environment by animals.
The question is, what can we do about it? Current trends offer a potential hint. In the weeks since the COVID-19 response went into high gear, we have seen a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and other atmospheric pollutants. In fact, the Energy Information Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, has projected a 7.5 percent drop in annual emissions this year due to reduced economic output and travel.
Globally, airplane emissions, in the aggregate, are higher than emissions from some individual countries. Removing of thousands of flights daily has reduced carbon dioxide emissions. For a convincing visual representation, visit this article at the New York Times if only for the animated image showing what significantly reduced air travel looks like. Further, this image released by NASA shows the precipitous fall in nitrogen dioxide levels since measures were implemented to try and halt COVID’s spread.
Our sudden turn inward, and toward less consumptive activity, is reducing air pollution from automobiles as well. Los Angeles, known for being equally choked with automobile traffic and the smog it produces, is experiencing some of its cleanest air in decades as cars take the 405, to the 10, get off at Sepulveda, and head straight into their garages. (That joke makes sense if you’ve spent any prolonged time in L.A.) But, diesel-fueled trucks are still on the road and working harder than every thanks to our current home-boundedness. Furthermore, manufacturers are still spewing emissions into the air, albeit at a slowed pace. Still, 40 percent of harmful emissions is still a bad thing.
The last time such a drastic reduction took place was during the global financial crisis in 2008. Therefore, we see that our daily choices play an important role, not only in dealing with a pandemic, but also the root causes of global warming. This is welcome news in the fight to save the planet. Everyday consumers have, for a while now, been suffering a form of climate fatigue. Their recycling, turning off of lights, carpooling, biking to work, and use of energy efficient everything seems to have had little-to-no impact. The above proves that this is not the case. But it does leave them to think that government – or global – action is the only thing that can make a difference. They are right and wrong. Even if their daily choices matter, so does the underlying system – energy, manufacturing, transportation, etc. – within which they make those choices. Even if today’s transportation-related emissions fall, emissions from years past do not simply evaporate. Carbon dioxide emissions can remain in the atmosphere for up to 100 years. Therefore, something larger must work in tandem with daily choices.
All Hands On Deck
There is a need for larger interventions that strike at the foundation of our economy. Yes, people are off the roads, but they are increasingly online during this time of pandemic. Teleworking and video conferences have spiked, stressing existing (and woefully inadequate) internet infrastructure. Industrial parks that house data centers and cloud-based servers are seeing significant increase in energy use. Prior to COVID-19, 2 percent of global emissions were attributable to global internet infrastructure. That number may steadily ratchet upward the longer “stay at home” measures are followed. The dramatic increased use of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu alone is connected to greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to driving millions of miles.
All of this means more electricity, which means increased burning of fossil fuels like natural gas and coal. In the United States, those resources represent 38.4 and 23.5 percent, respectively, of the electricity generation portfolio. Therefore, stricter environmental regulations are necessary in electricity generation, manufacturing, and transportation if we are to make a truly collective effort to tackle the global public health crisis of climate change.
And some ideas are on the table. The Green New Deal (GND) and its advocates have not gone away. And if the U.S. response to COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is that we do in fact have the means to pay for the investments we need in energy, manufacturing, infrastructure, and transportation to make the U.S. a true global climate leader. For those who feel a national “greening” strategy is too government-heavy, some professionals are suggesting a carbon dividend, which taxes companies at the point of fossil fuel extraction and disburses the monies collected to American consumers to spend as they see fit. However, “as they see fit” is just another way of saying, “to pay for the eventual price hike resulting from companies passing the added cost down to the purchase of the finished product.” The carbon dividend is a much leaner proposal than the GND or a Cap-And-Trade system, but it is far from certain it would substantively curb our consumption and the GHG emissions that go with it. However, anything is worth trying.
Related, and somewhat ironic, is the massive cancellation of global climate conferences. Every year, delegations and committees connected the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) host meetings in various parts of the world prior to the annual Conference of the Parties. This year’s conference, COP 26, scheduled for Glasgow, Scotland has been postponed. But maybe that is good thing for two reasons. First, it might permanently reduce the carbon footprint associated with the entire climate conference circus. It is rarely lost on participants (myself having been one) that thousands of people around the globe are burning jet fuel to attend a single conference, gobbling up myriad resources to conduct it, and burning equal amounts of jet fuel going home.
Second, and more seriously, this might give delegations more time to hammer out the details of the Paris Agreement, which are due to be agreed upon this year. As I wrote in December, the process since Paris has not been easy. Perhaps delay will allow differing points of view to find common ground without the undue pressure of an annual global conference. In addition, the delay introduces the possibility of a delegation sent by a more constructive U.S. administration. President Trump has been abysmal with respect to environmental leadership (leadership of any kind, really, but that’s a different subject). Such failure would likely persist this year. A different administration may allow the U.S. to resume its leadership role, which begins by acknowledging having been, in cumulative terms, is the world’s largest GHG contributor. Credibility is rooted in accountability, and that credibility can impact foot draggers. As research shows, one superpower can make a difference.
At a more local level, we see municipalities adopting the “electrify everything” position and transitioning new infrastructure and buildings away from fossil fuel use (e.g., natural gas). Electricity generated from natural gas turbines, especially those that capture waste heat for further electricity generation, emits much fewer greenhouse gasses than coal-fired generation. However, methane, often release at the point of extraction, is much more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. Therefore, rather than weigh the pros and cons of fossil fuel use, it is easier to try and bypass fossil-based use all together in favor of renewable solutions backed by battery technology. As the graphic below shows, renewable energy generation is on the rise, coal’s demise continues, and the former is about to outpace the latter in terms of consumption by source.
Resolving climate change and COVID-19 requires that we take a very honest look our resource consumption, which is at the core of both problems. Unfortunately, the former does not immediately or drastically impact as many people simultaneously as the latter, which helps explain our inadequate response. But our fight against anthropogenic climate change must be as vigorous as the medical efforts against the pandemic.
Fortunately, we already know how to administer the cure to climate challenges. We are seeing the positive outcomes right now. But more must be done. We need aggressive research into technology that will extract existing GHG from the atmosphere. If increased telework is to be a permanent fixture of the workplace landscape going forward, we must increase the share of renewable energy powering our internet infrastructure. We need to seize the opportunity to re-think our patters regarding travel and embrace more aggressive energy efficiency solutions in our homes and buildings to do the same work with less energy.
Some of this will come from local action. Some of it will come at the national and international levels. It will require awareness and, yes, some sacrifice, but nothing close to what alarmists are saying will drag us back to the days of the last global pandemic. Failure to meet the challenge could endanger the safety and well-being of millions on this planet for decades to come.