Last week, a hopeful news story made the rounds. After three weeks of lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus, residents of Jalandhar in northern India could see the serrated ridges of the Himalaya on the horizon, more than 100 miles distant. “For the first time in almost 30 years I could clearly see the Himalayas due to India’s lockdown clearing air pollution,” wrote Manjit Kang, one of thousands who shared images of the majestic mountain range online.
Those images joined social media channels crowded with satellite images showing greatly reduced CO2 and nitrogen dioxide levels in China, Europe, and America’s Eastern Seaboard. In boredom or hope, some of the billion-plus people now confined to their homes shared memes proclaiming the global shutdown’s silver lining: a massive worldwide reduction in pollution.
The shutdown is a brief clearing of the air; a glance at a distant mountain range normally lost in smog. But it’s also a rare glimpse at what we as a species can accomplish together.
To anyone who’s seen nature’s regenerative power up close, that message has the ring of truth. If you’ve ever hiked through a clear-cut alive with fresh growth, or reveled in a desert wildflower bloom after a long drought, you might smile and nod when you see it. If you cheer when dams come down and rivers reassert themselves, that meme’s for you.
It’s a feel-good story in a nervous time. We want good news. The news will be even better, if we use this global pause on emissions to walk a different path moving forward.
Start with the big one, climate change. How much has the shutdown reduced global carbon emissions? More than every recession, depression, pandemic, and war since 1900 put together, it turns out.
This week’s headlines tell the story. The Guardian proclaimed the shutdown could cut worldwide CO2 emissions by 2.5 billion metric tons in 2020, the greatest reduction in carbon pollution ever recorded. The MIT Technology Review put a different spin on the same data. “We halted the global economy, and emissions still may only fall 4 percent this year—and they’ll likely rebound as the Coronavirus outbreak recedes,” it declares, and that’s just the headline. The story unpacks the statistics, piling one distressing fact on the next.
In order to hold the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial levels, the world would have to reduce carbon emissions by 6 percent a year for the rest of this decade, according to an in-depth analysis by Simon Evans of climatebrief.org. Evans predicts the 2020 reduction will amount to just over 4 percent. Other estimates range from about 3 percent to as high as 14 percent, but wherever the final numbers land the conclusion is the same. We need a shutdown-level reduction—or more—every year for a decade, just to keep the climate crisis from spinning out of control.
By way of comparison, Evans notes that the largest annual reduction until now was 845 million tons of CO2 during the last year of the Second World War. The decline after the financial crisis of 2008-09 ranks only fifth, at 440 million tons, and was followed by a stimulus-driven increase of 1,612 million tons the following year.
The largest emissions reductions have come in times of great upheavals to global society, and the current crisis is no different. “This decline is happening because of the economic meltdown in which thousands of people are losing their livelihoods, not as a result of the right government decisions in terms of climate policies,” the head of the International Energy Agency, Dr Fatih Birol, told the Guardian. “The reason we want to see emissions decline is because we want a more livable planet and happier, healthier people.”
Productivity and pollution go hand-in-hand on the economic graphs. It would be simple to conclude, as many have, that what’s good for the economy is necessarily bad for the planet, and vice versa. That has been the cornerstone of climate equivocation and denial from the very beginning. It explains the rush to prop up the ruinous fracking industry, even though it has never been economically viable. It explains the thinking behind the White House ordering the EPA to suspend enforcement of environmental laws during the crisis.
To limit the effects of climate change we have to move in the opposite direction. There will need to be a break in the connection between economic growth and carbon emissions, a kind of green Holy Grail economists call “decoupling.”
Massive stimulus spending in the wake of the crisis offers the best chance in a generation to push the economy in that direction. In March, a group of prominent climate activists called for a $2 trillion green stimulus to rebuild the American economy on a more sustainable footing. Congress instead rushed through a $2.7 billion package shoring up airlines, hospitals and oil and gas producers. “There is little reason to expect the coronavirus crisis to accelerate climate-friendly decoupling, unless post-pandemic recovery efforts make that shift a priority,” Evans writes.
Where this all ends up depends on your cinematic worldview. With widespread decoupling the future might someday look like Star Trek, a prosperous techno-Utopia operating in harmony with nature. Without it, we could find ourselves living in a Mad Max remake. Currently, we’re running flat-out toward the Thunderdome. The coronavirus lockdown could just be a mere pump of the brakes before the worldwide industrial economy again stomps on the gas.
The reduction in carbon emissions during the shutdown is a brief clearing of the air; a glance at a distant mountain range normally lost in smog. But it’s also a rare glimpse at what we as a species can accomplish together. Think about this for a moment: Never in the history of humanity have we worked so closely together to confront a common crisis. That may be due more to our increasingly connected world than any inherent human wisdom, but it’s happening.
So we’re at home, most of us, longing for the forests and streams but mostly going nowhere. We do our part, staying put as the air clears for a few days or weeks and the mountains appear again on the far horizon, beckoning.
Top Photo: NASA
For a fascinating look into what the planet would look like absent any human influence, check out Alan Weisman’s The World With Us, available, here.