With strict stay-at-home orders in place over the last couple months, we humans have been forced to stay inside; meaning less driving, less flying, less manufacturing, and less industrial output. Due to this, there has been a momentous decline in global greenhouse gas emissions scientists reported on Tuesday.
The lack of human activity resulted in a decline of more than one billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. According to the study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, peak drop in emissions happen in early April, reaching 17 percent.
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The study projects that total emissions for 2020 will likely fall four to seven percent compared to last year, an unprecedented drop. Last fall, a United Nations report estimated that global greenhouse gas emissions would need to fall 7.6 percent each year beginning in 2020 to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Even with a pandemic this year, we just barely meet that goal.
Unfortunately, as life returns to normal, this significant drop could only be a blip. According to Rob Jackson, a Stanford University professor and one of the authors of the study, the 2008 financial crisis decreased global emissions by 1.5 percent for one year, but they shot back up 5 percent in 2010. “It was like it never happened,” he concluded.
The study reveals that our behavior alone is not enough to mitigate climate change. If a worldwide shutdown won’t help, what will? What’s necessary is broad structural changes to the energy system. Corrine Le Quéré, lead author of the study and director of Britain’s Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, expected to find larger reductions in the power and industrial sectors during the pandemic. What she found, however, is that these sources of carbon dioxide and other pollutants continued steadily, even while society stopped around them.
Now, with cities and states starting to open back up and gas prices egregiously low, it’s likely that emissions will soon return to normal levels. Since the world can’t afford an international shutdown 2-3 months out of every year, how are we to precede? Climate change is much larger than individual behavior.
There have been many examples of nature’s improvement in the absence of humans. Just look at how clear Venice’s canals are. Or how clear the air over Los Angeles has been. But, without consistent change in the future pertaining to how we view energy and the environment, it’s likely that this is all just a blip. As people are looking for things to return to “normal,” maybe not everything should.