COVID-19 drops carbon emissions by 6% – So where does the remaining 94% arise from?
The COVID-19 pandemic has dropped carbon emissions levels by 6% globally. In light of this reduction, this article asks two questions. Where do the remaining 94% originate from? and what lessons can we learn in terms of sustainable development?
You may remember scenes from films in ‘The Day the Earth stood Still‘ – genre. Silent streets, empty roads, and transport hubs at a standstill. The warning slowly became clear to Mankind – consider changing your ways! Such scenes have been the impact of coronavirus on our cities and communities.
In my community of 3,500 residents, everyone has disappeared, only a few pedestrians remain, and wildlife has moved closer to the village center.
Business life stopped overnight, travel abroad ceased, and the phones only rang from customers seeking to cancel work. The climatic impacts have been one of the few positive stories to emerge over the last few weeks. Smog afflicted cities (New Dehli and Los Angeles) now have blue skies overhead, fish are visible Venice’s murky canals, and pollution has declines over China.
I was surprised, therefore, to read reports that global CO2 emissions were predicted to fall only by 5-6% (Carbon Brief – Apr 9, 2020).
This decline in atmospheric carbon will still form one of the most significant atmospheric falls in recent history. However, the decrease was surprisingly smaller than the events I am experiencing through a lockdown and observing in the news. I was expecting a more significant reduction in global emissions. At the same time, one-third of the world experienced national self-isolation programs—a temporary visual win for the climate battle, but a reality check for us all. Human-derived carbon emissions have to drop by 8% annually to check the rise in global warming.
A Glimpse into a Necessary Future
Can we now start to envision what a drop in carbon emissions will mean in our lifestyles? The changes we need to make and the pressure on our societies required to safeguard the lives of future generations? Will the need to get back on our feet economically in jeo2021 jeopardize this reality check. The Coronavirus pandemic had occurred at a time when international climate change treaties and commitments were floundering through political indifference and state brinkmanship.
The other critical questions that the coronavirus lockdown has raised for me are:
- If our lives are currently at a standstill, and globally atmospheric levels have dropped only by 6%. Why are carbon emissions still so high?
- Where do the remaining 94% of emissions originate from? and
- Why are these indifferent to the coronavirus lockdown in terms of social and industrial activity?
A Grist article by Shannon Osaka (Apr 27, 2020) gave a great insight into these puzzles, and provided helpful statistics:
Electricity and heating combined account for over 40% of global emissions.
Electricity and heating combined still account for over 40% of global carbon emissions. We may have switched to home working during the pandemic, but our need for light, heat, and communications remain. Our utility companies are still generating electricity and providing natural gas at pre-COVID-19 rates. Households lacking utility connections and who rely on wood, coal, etc. are still utilizing them at the same amounts. Businesses may have shut, but energy demand hasn’t stopped, and our world is still primarily powered by fossil fuels.
Manufacturing, construction, and other industries account for a further 20%
Manufacturing, construction, and other types of industrial products account for a further 20 percent of carbon emissions. Many industrial plants have ceased production or slowed down. High demand sectors such as smelting (such as the steel, alumina, and glass sectors) are operating normally. These sectors globally consume vast amounts of fossil fuels. They are maintaining production to avoid the operational consequences of shut down or to fulfill existing demand.
Transportation accounts for another 20%
Transportation makes up just over 20% of global carbon emissions. It is within this sector that sense the greatest change brought about by COVID-19. The alteration in daily transport behaviors, the drop in domestic or business mileage. Courier vehicles now collectively deliver to our doorsteps, the goods that we would have made individual journeys to acquire. If there is a lesson here, it is in the reflection that what we previously regarded as essential has changed. The current experience has identified how much re-invention our societies must undertake to a carbon-free but mobile society.
Questions for Sustainability
Our everyday world has changed significantly, yet the macro-threat of global carbon emissions remains untouched. Temporary beneficial environmental effects (blue skies, clear water) will no doubt disappear as our lives return to previously interrupted lifestyles.
It reminds us that sustainability in business is so much more than simple EMS systems, the recycling of office materials, simplistic transport policy, and a benevolent approach to charities through CSR. If we genuinely wish sustainable development to contribute to the economic, environmental, and social well-being of society. Then we will require a harder and more strategic edge to the partnerships between organizations, governments, and society:
- What is the point of sending materials off to be recycled in carbon-emitting recovery plants?
- Can society tolerate a 1 cent ($) cheaper products that require carbon footprints of several thousand miles transportation lines, and the exploitation of scarce materials
- The intrinsic value of essential goods and ‘stuff’ with a high carbon life cycle? and ultimately:
- The economic benefit in continuing to subsidize or tolerate industries that continue to refrain from acting responsibly and who continue to utilize free ecosystem services at the expense of local communities and their environments.
The harsh reality is that global carbon emissions need to be cut by 8 percent annually to keep global warming from surpassing the 1.5 degree Celsius tipping point. Prevarication by business and government fails to cover their individual role as individuals, citizens, consumers, and parents for future generations.
Temporary blue skies and clear waters shouldn’t be a brief marvel in degraded cities during a pandemic. They should instead arise through our own unsustainable practices and as fundamental right!
As intelligent mid-sized apes with an overdeveloped penchant for altering local environments & the acquisition of ‘stuff’, perhaps it is time to listen to Charles Darwin’s words
“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”
Covid-19 has shown that we can act and change quickly in our self-interest and survival. There is a clear lesson here for our long-term self-interest and survival.