What Should The Lockdowns Teach Us About Fighting Climate Change?
The coronavirus lockdowns provided the most colossal accidental experiment in history, at the most necessary moment in history, about our fight against climate change. Many international media outlets have reported about the significant decrease in climate change emissions due to the lockdowns, and then again reported that climate emissions have risen again as the lockdowns have lifted.
One graphic in the journal Nature Climate Change excellently depicted the fall and rise of emissions (as of June 10), also pointing out emissions sectors over time (below).
Why did these reductions occur?
Consider the classic equation “I = P·A·T”, where:
· I = Impact;
· P = Population;
· A = Affluence;
· and T = Technology
In this case, the “Impact” is greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and they are caused by the “P” (human population) multiplied by “A” (affluence, or the amount of energy consumption humans create), multiplied by “T” (our technology including fossil-fuel burning cars, powerplants, industries, airplanes, etc.)
The significant (15%), fast reductions in GHG emissions occurred because “A” (affluence) dramatically decreased with the coronavirus lockdowns. We all stopped driving, stopped a lot of shopping, stopped flying, and many industries shut down. Note that the “T” (technology) didn’t change at all — because all of the technologies were still fossil-fueled — but we quit using many of those technologies and thus quit consuming a consequential amount of energy through our “A” (affluence). Additionally, of course, the “P” (population on the planet, and in industrialized countries that are the biggest energy consumers) also did not consequentially change.
Likewise, as soon as the lockdowns were lifted, GHG emissions started rising again as the same number of people using the same technology started being affluent (consuming energy) again.
So, what does this teach us about how to fight climate change? Let’s go through the “I = P·A·T” equation and very briefly discuss opportunities and tradeoffs, and then take the poll.
Option 1: Focus on “P”, Population to fight climate change. Doing so is very difficult because it’s politically and culturally complex to change human population numbers. In most industrialized countries, “P” is driven by immigration levels, whereas in most lesser-industrialized countries, “P” is driven by birthrates. Trying to stabilize or reduce either or both finds you in a deep political quagmire.
At the same time, an easy argument can be made that if we don’t stabilize or reduce “P”, we will never solve climate change in addition to all of the other huge environmental impacts caused by nearly 8 billion people on Earth including the fast-growing immigration-driven population in the U.S. Further, a number of recent scientific studies indicate that “having one fewer child” can be the most effective way to reduce an individual’s lifelong climate emissions, especially in industrialized countries like the U.S.
Option 2: Focus on “A”, Affluence to fight climate change. This is also difficult, and the extraordinary coronavirus experiment proved that it involves huge tradeoffs. Shutting down part of the world economy has had devastating impacts, the finality of which we haven’t even seen yet. Further, the impacts have been far worse on poor and marginalized people in every corner of the globe. Further yet, billions of people across the planet aspire to higher levels of consumption, some of them living with no electricity such that ‘energy poverty’ is a profound problem of human rights and justice.
At the same time, an easy argument can be made that if we don’t reduce “A”, especially in high energy-consuming countries, we will never solve climate change let alone all of the other huge environmental impacts caused by nearly 8 billion consumers on Earth, including hundreds of millions in high-consuming industrialized countries like the U.S.
Option 3: Focus on “T”, Technology to fight climate change. This focus has been the primary work of most environmental groups as well as most governments and corporations, at all levels. The argument is often made that changing “T” — which means stopping or mitigating the use of all fossil fuels — is achievable, and billions of dollars of organizational effort has been spent trying to do so.
Despite that argument, there are considerable counter-arguments including that 1) very little progress has been made despite 30 years of effort, and 2) the global fossil fuel industry is hugely powerful in every country of the planet, especially in countries that are not democracies. Additionally, by solely focusing on “T”, little or no progress gets made on “P” and “A”, which makes “T” even harder to solve.
Let’s offer two more options before we get to the poll.
Option 4: Focus more on climate adaptation, and less on climate mitigation. This approach also has pragmatic appeal because it’s very clear that mitigation — trying to reduce the amount of GHGs emitted — is not working very well. As such, we should focus more on adaptation, which means accepting that climate change is going to happen and cause severe consequences, and thus we should spend our time and money focusing on adapting to it. Adaptation might include these approaches:
· Using scarce water resources more efficiently,
· Adapting construction activities to future climate conditions and extreme weather events,
· Building flood defenses and raising the levels of dykes,
· developing drought-tolerant crops,
· Choosing tree species and forestry practices less vulnerable to storms and fires,
· Setting aside land and waterway corridors to help species migrate,
· And moving people away from low-lying coastlines.
Option 5: Focus on all of the above (or some hierarchy of all 4) to fight climate change. This option offers a pragmatic approach of ‘doing whatever you can, wherever you can’ to mitigate climate change, while preparing for the likely future that the climate will change for the worse. The downside is that resources and political will may be spread out too thin to do any one thing well, and thus all will fail.