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The Coronavirus and the Limits of Individual Climate Action

The pandemic has emptied the roads and cleared the skies. It still isn’t enough to reverse climate change.

Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images
A near-empty Los Angeles, free of smog

In the United States, the fight against climate change is often framed as a matter of individual action toward a collective goal. If only Americans would drive and fly less and consume more sustainable energy and food, then maybe our country could do its part to help reduce carbon emissions worldwide.

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic are a sobering rejoinder to such hopes. With much of the world in lockdown, road traffic and air travel have decreased significantly. The air in major cities like Los Angeles and New York is clearer than it’s been in decades, revealing skylines and mountain ranges previously obscured. We have never had a clearer example of how changes to individual behavior, on a mass scale, can make a real difference. And yet, as drastically as our lives have been circumscribed in recent weeks, new data shows that this would not be enough to save the planet—even if it were somehow sustainable.

Carbon Brief, a website in the United Kingdom, has estimated that the pandemic could wind up cutting global carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 by 5.5 percent—“the largest annual fall in CO2 emissions ever recorded, in records going back to the 18th century.” Another report predicts a 5 percent reduction this year, based on anticipated economic stagnation in the months ahead. Any drop in emissions, which currently aren’t being reduced fast enough to curb global warming, would normally be good news. But with such dramatic changes to the ways we conduct our lives, a 5 percent reduction feels like poor payoff. Climate experts aren’t celebrating. If anything, they say, this comparatively mild and temporary reduction shows how desperately we need comprehensive climate policy—to reduce emissions in a truly systematic, sustainable way.

In order to hit the aspirational target of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) outlined in the Paris Agreement, emissions would need to fall by about 7.6 percent every year for the next decade. Even the 5 percent reduction estimated for this year wouldn’t be enough—and the way we’ve gotten to that reduction is not sustainable in the long term. Although they are necessary to halt the spread of the coronavirus, stay-at-home orders are already affecting the emotional, physical, and financial well-being of millions of people. And, experts say, as soon as businesses begin to reopen, we’ll likely see a push to ramp up production and erase most or all of these environmental gains.

Carbon Brief cautioned that even a 10 percent reduction would still mean that we’re emitting more carbon dioxide than we were in, say, 2010. “Any emissions cuts in 2020 alone will, therefore, have little impact, unless they are followed by longer-lasting changes,” the analysis concluded.

“Individual action, although important, will not solve this, in my opinion. We’re going to have to have government action,” Alice Hill, a senior fellow for climate change policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. Hill previously served as special assistant to President Obama and senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council. When people used to ask her what would cause emissions to go down, Hill would say “a pandemic.”

“Now that we’re in a pandemic and I have had a chance to reflect on it more deeply, it’s clear to me that there will be this relatively small drop,” she said. Moreover, “once we get the economy back up and going, we probably will lurch forward in our emissions.” In fact, we could actually see an increase in emissions as some places turn back to established—and dirtier—sources of energy, such as coal.

China, which saw an estimated 25 percent drop in emissions earlier this year, has relied on coal for its rapid economic growth and is now the largest carbon dioxide emitter on the planet. “The question is, how they will choose to come back?” Hill said. China’s not the only country facing these decisions: The Trump administration hasn’t indicated an interest in transitioning to clean energy during or after the pandemic. In theory, the economic recovery that follows the pandemic will offer opportunities to build a more sustainable economy. “The question,” Hill said, “is whether it’s an opportunity that will be seized or not.” 

Reducing emissions from transportation doesn’t have to mean not traveling, in the fashion of the current stay-at-home measures. Switching to more sustainable fuels and efficient vehicles, as well as changing travel and the transportation of goods, is also important. There are several possible ways to bring that about, including carbon pricing—whether a cap-and-trade or carbon tax program.

Transportation made up the biggest slice of the emissions pie in 2018, with 28 percent of emissions coming from personal and commercial transportation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Within that slice, about one-fifth of transportation emissions come from commercial freight trucks. While more people are staying home, both from work and from travel, deliveries have skyrocketed. From March 22 to April 4, online shopping in North America soared by more than 50 percent, and online grocery shopping in particular saw a massive increase—more than 200 percent higher in March than it was last August. And as people stay home and rely on electronic communication more than ever, they could put more pressure on electricity consumption—the second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the U.S. Changes in personal consumption habits have their limits if the energy sources remain the same.

Individual actions do matter. Some personal sacrifices will need to be made to address climate change, and how we live our lives will inevitably be affected by those changes—whether that’s in response to greener policies or to the rapid environmental shifts, like floods and wildfires, themselves. But it’s hard to make a lot of planet-friendly individual choices—for example, switching to renewable energy sources—when the system to do so has not been put in place. The two aren’t mutually exclusive: Individual consumption choices can lead to systemic changes, and sustainable changes can lead to better consumption habits. But a 2019 study in the journal Nature Climate Change found that when people are asked to make small personal sacrifices, they’re less likely to push for wider systemic changes like a carbon tax.

As with efforts to control and respond to a pandemic, strong leadership, regulation, and preparedness can make a much bigger difference than individual habits in cutting emissions, and they can prevent draconian measures of last resort like limiting our movements and restricting the economy. But right now, officials seem focused on getting the economy back on track to where it was before, and in the meantime, the administration has rolled back several environmental protections.  

Leadership needs to come at the national level, and it particularly needs to come from high-emissions countries like the U.S. and China, said Lauren Herzer Risi, the project director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center. State and local leaders have taken the lead on responding to crises, from the pandemic to climate, she said. But like individual action, local leadership can only go so far. The American federal government has abandoned the field in recent years. “It creates a vacuum for other actors, like China, to come in,” Herzer Risi said.

There’s an idea, Maxine Burkett, co-founder and senior adviser at the Institute for Climate and Peace, told me, that environmental provisions are “nice to have, and that they are negotiable at times of crisis.” On the contrary, she said, “the ‘normal’ that we left a few weeks ago was a moment of crisis.” The federal response to the pandemic has been “a train wreck on so many levels,” Burkett said. “It’s just an absolute demonstration of what it means to not take science seriously, to not have expert panel and experience guide you, to not also have equity and equal access and concern for the most vulnerable be your North Star.” The federal lack of readiness for the coronavirus has proven tremendously costly in terms of both lives and money, she said. “Obviously, that maps on perfectly to what we’re risking with climate change.”

Some of the lowered emissions projections for 2020, Burkett pointed out, are based on weakened economic growth. Suppressing that growth, instead of transitioning to a vibrant green economy, would prolong our economic troubles. Yet investing in green initiatives—changing energy use and efficiency, creating green jobs, and rethinking transportation—could promote growth while keeping emissions low, she said.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown how quickly governments can make decisions to ensure the safety and well-being of their citizens, Herzer Risi pointed out. “Clearly, we are able to make significant shifts in focus when needed,” she said. And this tumultuous time also offers us a glimpse of what a fossil-free world would look like, Burkett argued, with cleaner air and rebounding ecosystems. People may get used to seeing skylines and mountain ranges previously obscured by smog, and they may see that as the new baseline for their environmental rights going forward. “There is a better world on the other side of this,” Burkett said. She likes to imagine the day when she won’t have to worry about mercury in the water any longer, and ecosystems and biodiversity are rebounding. She calls it “the day after tomorrow.”

“The day after tomorrow is actually quite beautiful,” she said. “There’s so much possibility there.”