A golden opportunity or evidence of its futility. The blockades set in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 have shown the two sides of the measures to prevent environmental damage.
The planet is experiencing the largest drop in carbon emissions ever recorded. No war, no recession, no pandemic has had such a dramatic impact on CO2 emissions like COVID-19 in just a few months. This year we will see an incomparable fall in carbon production. However, CO2 emissions in the atmosphere and the Earth’s rising temperatures will not stabilize until the world reaches net zero.
Ever since the Spanish Flu killed millions of people over 100 years ago, CO2 emissions – from the use of oil, gas, and coal – have dramatically increased. While these energy sources have transformed the world, the carbon that filters into the atmosphere has raised global temperatures by slightly more than 1°C since 1850-1860.
Recession and fall
Global temperatures could increase by 3 and 4°C by the end of this century if CO2 levels are not drastically reduced. The key phrase here is “if they are not reduced.” Over the past century, several events have demonstrated that sharp drops in carbon emissions are indeed possible. One example is the financial collapse of 2008-2009. In reality, carbon emissions only fell by 450 million tons back then. A much smaller amount than the 800 million tons of CO2 recorded after World War II.
It was also less than during the global recession of the 1980s that followed the oil crisis of the late 1970s. In this period, CO2 emissions went down by 1,000 tons.
A new opportunity
Nonetheless, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 overshadows all these events. Energy demand has plummeted around the world. The International Energy Agency estimates that energy use will decrease by 6% this year, which is the equivalent of losing India’s energy demand and large drops in CO2.
Other analyses, including Carbon Brief, show that this year emissions will decrease by 4% to 8% or 2,000 million and 3,000 million tons, which is 6 to 10 times more than during the last global recession.
As to Spain, a report prepared by Ecologistas en Acción in May indicated that since the beginning of the state of emergency on March 14, environmental pollution due to NO2 has declined in the main Spanish cities. Reduced traffic has translated to an unprecedented improvement in air quality. It has even dropped under the legal minimums and the recommendations by the World Health Organization.
Good but not that good
Against all odds, global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and the drop will likely be much smaller than what scientists believe is necessary to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Furthermore, this reduction would be short-lived and will not stop climate change, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
Indeed, the drop is not even enough for the world to meet the targets of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. This would entail reducing emissions by 7% annually. These lacking declines come at a great cost for global economy. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank estimate that the impending recession will be as much or even more severe than the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s of the past century.
In Spain, the declining production, the closure of enterprises, and the cancelation of touristic and cultural activities put a growing percentage of the population at risk of losing part or all their income and a large part of their savings, in case they have them.
Data from BBVA Research indicates that a third of Spanish households (more than 6.18 million) are in a situation of extreme economic vulnerability. Furthermore, 16% of family units – 3.05 million – would be in no condition to afford the expenses, not even for a month, and would need public or private aid.
Similarly, the Gross Domestic Product will go down by 6.8% to 12.4% due to the effect of the lockdown. Banco de España indicates this GPD drop is unprecedented in recent history.
Similar reports have been published in Germany, France, Italy, Russia, the United States, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. These reports show that the drop in greenhouses gases not only does not suffice to stop climate change, it is also unsustainable for society.
On the right path
However, there are reasons to be optimistic, IRENA’s Global Renewable Outlook forecasts that the transformation of the energy system could boost cumulative global GDP gains above business-as-usual by $98 trillion between now and 2050. Renewable energy jobs will nearly quadruple to 42 million and employment in energy efficiency would increase to 21 million.
The International Energy Agency estimates that global energy consumption will drop by 6% due to the pandemic
IRENA director Francesco La Camera said that “the crisis has exposed the deep vulnerabilities of the current system.” In this scenario, the analysis stresses the importance of “accelerating renewables and making the energy transition an integral part of the wider recovery.” Also, aligning short-term recovery efforts with the targets of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals could help build more sustainable, equitable, and resistant economies.
“We are witnessing the decline and fall of the fossil fuel system. Technological innovation and political support would reduce the demand for fossil fuels in one sector after another and in one country after another. And the COVID 19 pandemic has accelerated this. It’s possible that overall demand for fossil fuels has now peaked,” said Kingsmill Bond, Carbon Tracker energy strategist and author of the report.
Additionally, the lockdown has served to implement some uses and customs that could lead to the right path. The first visible effect is that people have completely changed their routines. Students are not going to classes and people are not going to their jobs. The days of going to the cinema, the theater or to the football match also stopped. Some work centers have implemented a home office mode for the first time. Others have extended this system to more activities than what was originally established. In practice, it translates to reducing transport use and travel-related emissions and gain useful time.
In this scenario, the bicycle has proved to be a great ally during a contingency. Its use increased among those who have to go out and are afraid to catch the virus in public transportation. Some local businesses are using it to make deliveries. Citizens are using it to do their groceries or exercise. Cycling has an intrinsic zero-emissions value.
Restrictions to mobility have also forced people to purchase their items at local businesses, in their neighborhoods, with positive effects to family economies. Due to the economic impact and aftermath of the coronavirus, supporting local businesses, even after the end of the lockdown, could be a way to help many families. In these businesses, people can purchase bulk goods, in reusable packages, and without polluting stickers.
Spain has joined the team that is seeking a foothold to move forward in the right direction. The draft law for Climate Change and Energy Transition was approved by the Minister Council and submitted for parliamentary approval. It contains the lines of action to build an economy and a society that are less vulnerable to the effects of the varying global temperatures determined by science.
Similarly, it establishes steps for action following the Paris Agreement and the European Union commitments, like the Green Deal. Some of the main goals include achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, mitigating climate change, adapting to its effects, and becoming a more prosperous and secure nation.
The goal of the Law for Climate Change and Energy Transition is to reduce GHG emissions by 20%, compared with 1990 levels, by 2030. Compared with 2017, the last year with consolidated data, the effort will entail lowering emissions by 33%. The target is in line with the more ambitious goal set by the European Commission for 2030: going from current 40% target below 1990 levels to 50% and 55%. Obviously, these goals should take into account the effects of the economy and society.
The climate change law aims to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% below 1990 levels by 2030
In Spain, however, the progress is not limited to laws and government action. While the economic crisis derived from the pandemic has impacted investments in energy transition and the fight against climate change, Spaniards are moving toward a more sustainable economy. In late May, for instance, Capital Energy, Iberdrola, and Naturgy announced mega projects and billion-dollar investments in the renewable energy sector. The gas sector joined with significant proposals for circular economy using renewable gases. For their part, Nestlé Spain and Back to Eco announced large recycling and waste management projects.
Difficult but not impossible
The progress recorded shows that, despite the difficulties, the fight against climate change is not a utopia. The initial approval of the law is an important starting point. Other important factors include the participation of the private sector which, at least initially, has shown its willingness to contribute.
The third large player is society at large. Supporting a circular economy from home, prioritizing home office, purchasing at local businesses, using alternative transportation means, and reducing mobility are small steps for citizens, but they could take us a long way to the climate transition.
For more information, check Energía16