As the coronavirus pandemic rages, there are almost no cars in the streets and the sidewalks are pedestrian-free. People are flying kites, even the air quality of Dhaka has improved, and according to carbon brief the global CO2 emissions are on-track to drop by about 5.5 percent.
The drop in carbon emissions has gotten us all excited, hasn't it? But before you start celebrating know that even with the global economy at a near-standstill, the best analysis suggests that the world is still on track to release 95 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted in a typical year, continuing to heat up the planet and driving climate change even as we're stuck at home.
A 5.5-percent drop in carbon dioxide emissions would still be the largest yearly change on record, beating out the financial crisis of 2008 and World War II. But it's worth wondering: Where do all of those emissions come from? And if stopping most travel and transport is not enough to slow down climate change, what will be?
"I think the main issue is that people focus way, way too much on people's personal footprints, and whether they fly or not, without really dealing with the structural things that really cause carbon dioxide levels to go up," said Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist and the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, speaking to news outlet Grist.
According to the International Energy Agency, transportation makes up a little over 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. That is a significant number, but it also means that even if all travel were completely carbon-free (a renewable-powered, electrified train system, combined with personal EVs and battery-powered airplanes), there would still be another 80 percent of fossil fuel emissions around the skies of the world.
So where are all those emissions coming from? Electricity and heating combined account for over 40 percent of global emissions. And utilities are still generating roughly the same amount of electricity — even if more of it is going to houses instead of workplaces. Many people around the world rely on wood, coal, and natural gas to keep their homes warm and cook their food — and in most places, electricity has not become so green either.
Even with a bigger proportion of the world working from home, people still need the grid to keep the lights on and connect to the internet. "There's a shift from offices to homes, but the power hasn't been turned off, and that power is still being generated largely by fossil fuels," Schmidt said. In Bangladesh, we are also mostly dependent on fossil fuels to generate electricity we consume daily.
Manufacturing, construction, and other types of industry account for approximately 20 percent of CO2 emissions. Certain industrial processes like steel production and aluminium smelting use huge amounts of fossil fuels — and so far, Schmidt says, that type of production has mostly continued despite the pandemic.
The reality is that we need to cut carbon emissions by 7.6 percent every year to keep global warming from surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Even if the global lockdown and economic slump reduce emissions by 7.6 percent this year, emissions would have to fall even more in the upcoming years.
In the middle of the pandemic, it's become common to point to clear skies of different cities and the cleaner waters of Venice as evidence that people can make a difference on climate change. "The newly iconic photos of a crystal-clear Los Angeles skyline without its usual shroud of smog are unwanted but compelling evidence of what can happen when individuals stop driving vehicles that pollute the air," wrote Michael Grunwald in POLITICO magazine.
But these arguments conflate air and water pollution — crucial environmental issues in their own right! — with CO2 emissions. Carbon dioxide is invisible, and power plants and oil refineries are still pumping it into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, natural gas companies and livestock farming keep releasing methane.
It is worth remembering that a dip in carbon emissions will not lead to any changes in the global warming trend. Some scientists compare carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to water flowing into a leaky bathtub. The lockdown has turned the tap down, not off. Until we cut emissions to net-zero — so that emissions flowing into the atmosphere are equivalent to those flowing out — the Earth will continue to get warmer.
That helps explain why 2020 is already on track to be the warmest ever recorded, beating out 2016. In a sad irony, the decrease in air pollution may make it even hotter.
Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego, explained that many polluting particles have a "masking" effect on global warming, reflecting the sun's rays, canceling out some of the warming from greenhouse gas emissions. With that shield of pollution gone, Ramanathan said, "We could see an increase in warming."
We can appreciate the bluer skies and fresher air, while we can. But the emissions drop from the pandemic should be a warning, not a cause for celebration. It is a sign of how much further there is to go.