How COVID-19 Can Teach Us to Save our Climate
The reactions to and precautions taken due to COVID-19 have shown the extent of behavioral change that is possible in times of crisis. Can these findings be used in the global fight against climate change? Dr. Christian Stoll, a researcher with the TUM Center for Energy Markets at Technical University of Munich and the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., says: Yes.
A scientific analysis by Stoll and his MIT colleague Michael Mehling, published in the scientific journal One Earth, shows that the pandemic caused a 6% drop in global emissions in 2020 compared to 2019 – the largest drop in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions since World War II. These emission reductions are merely the side effect of the terrible pandemic. “What if some of the observed emission reductions could be sustained without the social and economic disruption experienced during the lockdown?” Stoll asks.
The authors started their analysis by examining pre-pandemic conditions as a baseline: Accounting for 73%, the main source of GHG emissions globally is the energy sector. More than one fifth of these emissions are caused by transportation. Due to the lockdown, road transportation dropped between 50% and 75% in affected regions. Aviation activity experienced an even larger decline of more than 90% in some regions.
To quantify the climate impact that pandemic-related measures had, Stoll and Mehling investigated the effects of specific behavioral changes on emissions. The authors identify three major opportunities:
- Commuting and business-related rides accounted for about half of vehicle miles traveled before the pandemic. Retaining work-from-home policies could permanently reduce the frequency and length of such rides.
- Shopping was the main purpose of approximately one-fifth of all passenger vehicle miles traveled. Further increases of online shopping and bulk purchasing behavior offer an opportunity to permanently reduce traffic.
- Less business travel might reduce not only the number of car rides, but also the number of flights. 10% of emissions from passenger flights originated from business travel before the pandemic. Four out of five flights could become obsolete as video-conferencing solutions become more widely used.
The study also considered further opportunities, such as increased bike commuting, and a trend toward more local sourcing, which could permanently reduce emissions from trucks, planes, ships, and trains. Also, the number of non-business or shopping-related automobile rides could be lower if people were to spend a higher share of their time online.
“In total, we estimate that up to one-third of miles driven by car before the pandemic could be avoided without net losses in societal well-being,” Stoll says. “Overall, we estimate that changes to travel patterns offer the opportunity to reduce transportation emissions by 15%.” But simply prolonging the lockdown restrictions to save the climate is not a serious alternative, given that the negative effects on the economy and society would be dramatic.”
Stoll, who holds a doctorate degree in political sciences, warns that many of the observed driving emission reductions during the lockdown come at a social price: reduced convenience and time savings, forgone pleasure and mental stress. “Mandating restrictions on mobility is unlikely to gain favor with voters,” Stoll says. “Which makes any interventions through policy mandates risky and potentially unpopular.”
Mehling emphasizes that forced lockdowns and extensive restrictions on economic activity “are not a viable strategy against climate change. Widespread social hardship and curtailed freedoms are too high a price to pay for reducing carbon emissions when alternative and less disruptive options exist.” Still, enabling policies and, of course, evolving mindsets can lead to meaningful emission reductions.
But the authors also warn that actions taken by governments to fight the acute economic crisis caused by the pandemic could end up increasing GHG emissions, especially if environmental safeguards are being relaxed to bolster the recovery. This happened during the economic and financial crisis of 2008, for instance.
“If the pandemic is to mark a historic peak in anthropogenic GHG emissions, we need to leverage such lessons and turn them into guardrails against a return to pre-pandemic emission growth,” Stoll demands. “We must ensure that, this time around, climate objectives inform our collective choices so that we avoid emerging from one crisis to having only exacerbated an even larger crisis.”
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