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The Environmental Crisis Averted, Or Simply Not Sustainable?

As reported in mainstream media consistently throughout the pandemic, the climate has done remarkably well under lockdown. With the vast majority of the Western world and many other industrial countries under quarantine, greenhouse gas emissions are a fraction of what they were at the same time last year. Governments have helped this by enforcing stay-at-home policies and making use of work retention scheme, an example of which would be the UK’s furlough scheme, which has seen a dramatic increase in the number of people working from home and a dramatic decrease in the number of those travelling. This new way to work has culminated in cars not going anywhere and factories and offices staying shut, for now.

But, the question that no one is talking about is whether this of level of emissions is actually achievable and if so, what are the types of measures that the state will need to impose to meet them?

Let Us Take Stock of the Damage

In order for us to know where we are now, we need to know where we have come from. During the whole of last year, all the world’s nations pumped 38.2 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels and other carbons. To put that number in a shorter time frame, that is 2.4 million pounds of carbon every second. This damage is not a burden shared equally among the nations of the world, in fact, the US, China and India (and other large economies) are the ones who take the most blame for this figure- the US alone last year produced 5,130 million metric tons of carbon in 2019, in line with2017 and 2016.

However, there was hope last year as the US, a country known for pulling out of climate agreements such as the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol, managed the biggest decrease in CO2 emissions of all the countries in the world. Last year they saw a fall of 140 metric tons of CO2, about 2%. However, it should be mentioned that the emissions figures for 2018 were higher than usual due to a period of economic growth at that time. If you want to look at the countries that have made the biggest sustained effort to reduce climate change, then look no further than the UK. From the period spanning 1992-2017, the UK has cut emissions by about 35%.

Many countries cannot boast of such an emissions record, but, going forward, we could take inspiration from the UK and apply it to the wider world. For example, driving in the capital, London, is slowly being phased out- being replaced with taxis, trains and busses. Emissions are often worse in cities anyway and so is air quality- a solution that tackles both is needed and an effective one is already in place. For generally, the use of coal and other fossil fuels is less so in the UK when compared to its European neighbours or its American allies. This, in turn, comes down to the use of nuclear power and wind turbines in energy production.

Quarantine and the Climate

Now, however, the picture looks a little different.

In the first week of April, emissions were 17% lower than what they were at the same time last year. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that global industrial greenhouse-gas emissions will be 8% lower in 2020 than in 2019- the largest annual drop since the Second World War.

This is no surprise since currently most non-essential industry is out of action and people are being told not to travel. Even the rates of use among all types of public transport is down. Since a large proportion of CO2 emissions are caused by everyday traffic, this should go a long way to reduce emissions down from their current levels.

The results of this strange experiment do not just come in number form, people all across the world are experiencing first-hand the results of lowered emissions. In Italy, dolphins and fish returned to the canals in Venice for the first time in decades. In the East, levels of smog surrounding major cities has decreased dramatically. Native species across the world are returning for the first time and it would seem that nature is finally on the mend.

The Crucial Truth

However, this is not a solution. What this little experiment has shown is that even by cutting out almost all air, car and sea travel, we are only 90% of the way there. The goal I am referring to is the 1.5-degree rise set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement- the most comprehensive climate agreement we have. This creates a problem because either the goal we are aiming at is too lofty or the strategy we are employing to reach that goal is not working as it should. The answer is that it is a little bit of both.

In order for us to carry on at this rate of decarbonisation, we will have to continue using little to zero transport services. This will mean moving busy office workers that travel to the cities every day to somewhere more local, this may be feasible in some places but not in others. The best solution for this issue is to carry on the trend of working at home. This will limit people travelling as much and make working conditions far more bearable. However, this brings up issues of productivity and the ability of employees to do their job optimally with lower broadband speeds, slower communication and slower devices.

This rate of decarbonisation also assumes that most businesses will not be operating in the normal economy. This will mean that the leisure, travel and education sectors will not be working and only essential work is ever carried out- such as health, food and essential maintenance. This also assumes that the vast majority of workers will be on government-backed furlough schemes, the results of which we have already seen in the EU.

How to go Forward

Running a “90% economy” is not the solution to the climate problem, and the results that have been achieved from quarantine have only highlighted how hard the problem is and nothing about the solution. A wise government will use the data collected during this time to really understand the scale of the issue and to realise one fundamental truth, we will have to work with the modern world.

We cannot, logistically and economically, use the current model as a way to fight climate change. Instead, we must rely on private sector innovation accompanied by trust and investment from the state to bring about solutions. The electric car is one such example. The embrace of nuclear power and the use of wind turbines will all provide an energy market that is without the side effects experienced by coal and oil.

This is no way to run an economy, a country or environmental policy. This crisis will not be solved by simply avoiding the issue. Something far more succinct is needed.

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© 2020 by James Thomas Consulting.