Air pollution falls during lockdown – but climate expert says behavioral changes are no long-term solution
The COVID-19 crisis may have led to clearer skies, but the “trajectory” of climate change will not alter even if behavioral changes forced by the pandemic continue after it ends, a leading climate scientist has warned Qatar Foundation’s Doha Debates.
Speaking during the latest edition of #DearWorld Live – Doha Debates’ weekly online show that tackles key issues surrounding the coronavirus situation – Dr. Zeke Hausfather, Director of Climate and Energy at California’s Breakthrough Institute, claimed perceptions that the pandemic has had a silver lining by reducing air pollution are wide of the mark.
The International Energy Agency has reported that global energy use fell by 3.8 percent in the first three months of 2020, may drop by six percent by the end of the year, and that this could lead to the world’s CO2 levels seeing an eight percent annual decrease – the largest on record.
But Dr. Hausfather told the #DearWorld Live episode, How Coronavirus Helps – And Hurts – The Climate Crisis: “Even if we reduce emissions by 6-8 percent this year, it will not make much of a dent in atmospheric CO2.
I would like to see clear skies over the Himalayas or San Francisco, but doing this in a way that lasts will require changes in the way we consume energy, not keeping everyone locked in their homes.
“We need to be cognizant that a single event will not fundamentally change the world’s trajectory. That needs us to change the way we generate energy by not releasing greenhouse gases, and this is a long-term investment, not a brief shock. I would like to see clear skies over the Himalayas or San Francisco, but doing this in a way that lasts will require changes in the way we consume energy, not keeping everyone locked in their homes.
“Dramatic changes in behavior through locking down entire countries have only resulted in a predicted eight percent reduction in emissions. We need to get to 90 percent, even 100 percent, to stop global warming and it’s hard to see how behavioral changes alone will accomplish that, even if they are part of the solution.”
We should take the opportunity to create a broader movement that addresses the multiple crises we face.
According to Dr. Hausfather, some countries are “bending the curve” of CO2 emissions, but he added: “There are far too few examples of this – the trends are moving in the wrong direction and the world is increasing its emissions year-on-year, although thankfully at a slightly slower rate than 10 years ago.
“The question is how we can harness this moment to change the trajectory of the world moving forward. In many countries, there is a lot of political gridlock about issues surrounding climate change and energy investments. This crisis creates an opportunity to not only invest in recovery efforts, but also the infrastructure needed to decarbonize our economies, such as high voltage electricity transmissions, clean energy deployment, and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.”
If it took people being under lockdown for there to even be minimal climate benefits, post-lockdown we have to ask about the role our economies play in climate change.
“If we continue to see a poverty crisis and livelihood destruction, and continue to distribute chemically-intensive, heavily-processed food, we will add to the greenhouse gases already contributed by an industrial globalized farming system. These crises have been created by a drive of industrial technology and money-making, and those drivers cannot be the solution.
“We should take the opportunity to create a broader movement that addresses the multiple crises we face. We could face extinction if we continue to do business as usual, and business as usual includes putting profit and miracle solutions first, and continuing to neglect nature’s ecological processes and people’s capacity to be resilient and innovative.”
And South African youth leader and activist Obakeng Leseyane told the show: “If it took people being under lockdown for there to even be minimal climate benefits, post-lockdown we have to ask about the role our economies play in climate change, and how we construct climate-friendly economies.
“A key part of this will come down to how strong our political will and human urgency is to reimagine our economies, because without some level of economic reform, we will go back to normal and changes in the level of climate benefits will probably not happen.”