Never have I seen skies so blue. Domes of crystalline purity unblemished by vapour trails or commuter smog, their hallucinatory stillness has presided over an astonishingly fertile spring. Birds are nesting in once-brackish ponds; clear waters have returned to canals and harbours; small animals are reclaiming traffic-island meadows. Occasionally, this resurgence of nature provides me a moment of transcendent calm – until my mind returns to the deepening horror of its cause.
By shutting down our lives and economies, we really have cleared the skies, at least somewhat.
An analysis by the greenhouse gas-monitoring organization Global Carbon Project found that the world’s carbon output for 2020 is likely to fall by about 5 per cent – the largest decline since the Second World War and the first time the world’s greenhouse gas output has declined since the economic crisis of 2008 caused it to fall by only 1.4 per cent.
“Neither the fall of the Soviet Union nor the various oil or [economic] crises of the past 50 years are likely to have affected emissions the way this crisis is,” Rob Jackson, the Stanford University professor of Earth science who chairs the GCP, told Reuters.
Another analysis, updated last week by the journal Carbon Brief, found that the decline in industrial and retail energy use, air travel, sea and land transportation and private automobile use have added up, globally, to “the largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions,” with 2020 carbon levels estimated to come in 5.5 per cent below 2019 levels.
In other words, the coronavirus pandemic has done more to reduce the human contribution to climate change than any carbon policy or international climate agreement ever has.
This has lent a voice to one popular argument about climate change: that we can fight it by reducing our economic activity and living a simpler life. What has caused humans to raise atmospheric temperatures, this argument says, is our consumption and growth, and only anti-growth policies will reverse the damage.
But in fact, de-growth theories have been comprehensively disproved by the past two months of human inactivity. As a global-scale natural experiment in growth and output reduction – albeit one that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives – we have managed to reduce transportation, manufacturing, energy consumption and economic growth far more than anyone could have realistically imagined, and produce the largest cut in economic growth since the Great Depression.
It has still not been enough.
Even if we kept the whole world locked down and in economic decline to this degree for the next 20 years, slashing carbon output by about 5 per cent each year, we now know that it would not be enough. According to the United Nations Environment Programme’s 2019 Emissions Gap Report, in order to meet the Paris climate accord’s goal of keeping the earth’s temperature rise down to 1.5 degrees, we need to reduce carbon emissions by 7.6 per cent each year for a decade.
A variety of scientific projections have shown that this goal can be attained through plausible and affordable changes. Some, such as replacing petroleum vehicles with new electric ones, were under way already. Others require big investments – replacing the coal-generating plants of China and India with nuclear and other green sources would have the biggest impact, and investments in cleaner goods transportation and carbon-capture technology are needed.
None of that is going to happen while the economy is stopped or shrinking. That’s because de-growth does not actually make us greener, but simply locks us into the status quo, which is not close to carbon-neutral.
A growing economy no longer means growth in carbon emissions. In fact, in most of the world’s larger economies – including the United States, Germany, France and Britain – economic activity is now decoupled from carbon emissions (including emissions created in making imported goods), meaning that increases in economic activity have caused decreases in greenhouse gas output. Growth in many places nowadays means replacing polluting things with greener things.
Almost all the things we need to do to achieve a carbon-neutral economy by 2050 are, in fact, dependent on robust economic growth – that is, they require us to replace old, inefficient cars and generating stations and buildings with new, clean ones, or to invest in new infrastructure to cut or absorb carbon.
None of that will happen if we’re sitting around doing nothing.
This “climate break,” however, has given us more than just blue skies: It has shown us that we can do big, dramatic things together, and sacrifice our short-term interests to serve the world’s long-term advantage. If we can make the whole world stop, then we can surely make it start again in a more sustainable way.
Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.