Linda S. Horning: Climate change and the pandemic
The world has been given an unimaginable gift in the fight against global climate change. According to a July article in Nature and Climate Change, our enforced confinement in March and April of this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic dropped CO2 emissions by a whopping 17% worldwide.
The associated annual decrease is expected to be much lower, but comparable to the rate of decrease needed over the next several decades to limit global warming to the 1.5 degrees Celsius specified in the Paris Climate Agreement. The high social trauma of confinement makes it undesirable in the long term, but we’ve learned some valuable strategies for achieving our climate goals and some may well increase our sense of well-being.
For instance, the biggest contributing factor to the drop in CO2 emissions was surface transportation, accounting for nearly half of carbon emissions. Cities like Bogota, New York, Paris and Berlin are already rededicating street space for pedestrians and cyclists to enable safe travel. Further emissions reductions in the transportation sector could be delivered with minimal impact.
But, before we consider ditching any efforts to enact new environmental legislation, remember this dip in carbon emissions is likely to be relatively short-lived and stops far short of our ultimate climate goals. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) stated in a November 2019 report that the U.S. will need to cut emissions 7.6% per year from 2020 to 2030 to achieve the 1.5°C goal.
Since this is a presidential election year, no discussion of climate change can be had without considering which political party will favor limiting emissions. Our current president wishes only to protect the fossil fuel industry, while Joe Biden has announced a $2 trillion climate plan. He stops short of endorsing the Green New Deal, a pair of resolutions in the 116th congress sponsored by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) that seeks to address climate change and economic inequality. Biden focuses more on job creation in the energy and automotive sector and on a target of reaching zero emissions by the year 2035.
As we contemplate the 9.5% drop in the U.S. gross domestic product between April and June of this year, and a second-quarter annualized rate of -32.9%, it’s hard to think of the pandemic as a “gift.” Likewise, the already reported deaths and a prediction of 200,000 to 211,000 total COVID-19 deaths by Sept. 26 cannot be viewed as anything less than a national tragedy. I do not wish to minimize any of that. But, let us learn from this disaster. Let us build on what we’ve been given in terms of climate stabilization.
Well before the pandemic reached our shores, in December of 2018, our neighbor to the north made carbon pricing the hallmark of its climate policy. Called the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act, the Canadian federal law prices carbon as a regulatory fee or tax on the carbon content of fuels. Where the fee is levied, 90% of revenues are returned to tax-payers, and as revealed in the 2019 federal election, the Canadian voting public fully supports the environmental legislation.
Leading scientists and oceanographers in the United States are stepping out of the lab to advocate for solutions to climate change. Dr. Kim Cobb, a professor at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech, spoke at the August monthly meeting of Citizen’s Climate Lobby to advocate for carbon pricing. Shocked by the devastating combined effect of global warming and a record-breaking El Niño event in 2016 on her study area in the Pacific Ocean, she rededicated her career toward working for climate relief. In an effort to reduce her personal carbon footprint, Dr. Cobb scaled back her flights to scientific conferences, preferring instead to speak remotely. One conference retracted her invitation to speak in February of this year, but that occurred before the pandemic.
Remote conferencing, redirecting of scientific efforts, support for carbon pricing and reduced emissions from surface transportation — how much more of our collective behavior can we attribute to COVID-19? History will have the last say on this, but meanwhile, be grateful for any advantage.
The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763) continues to gain momentum. If enacted, it is expected to drive down carbon emissions by 40% over the next 12 years while creating 2.1 million new jobs.
Join in the fight, and cast your ballot on Nov. 3 for anyone who supports it.
Linda S. Horning lives in Nevada City.
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