When Emission Reductions Aren’t Sustainable

An unexpected consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is a drop in air pollution. But how should we be thinking about the relationship between emissions and COVID?

An unexpected consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is blue skies as emissions drop and blankets of pollution lift. But as with everything right now, the story is complicated. How should we be thinking about the relationship between emissions and COVID?

All across the world, in waves that follow outbreaks of COVID-19, fossil fuel emissions are dramatically dropping as people opt to, or are told to, stay at home. Industrial processes have stalled, and factories have closed. Air transportation has been gutted, with global air traffic demand falling more than 50 percent, a decrease not seen since 9/11. In New York, the BBC reported that carbon monoxide from car travel is 50 percent lower as compared to last year. At the same time, electricity demand has fallen, with grid operators in the United States reporting a decrease in demand of up to 7 percent.

But reduced emissions are not reason for celebration.

In places riddled with thick air pollution, where blue skies are rarely seen, this momentary pause on emissions might seem a like a silver lining. Yet, among people considered at high risk for contracting a lethal form of COVID are those who have suffered the deleterious effects of prolonged exposure to air pollution, according to a new study by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Other scientists are just beginning to study whether cities with concentrated air pollution will fare worse overall during the pandemic. It is perhaps not surprising that Wuhan, a Chinese industrial city, and Milan, Italy, which has some of the most polluted air in Europe, were amongst the hardest hit.

Likewise, if you are home thinking about the brown to green energy transition, emissions reductions might seem like good news. But as environmental and energy policy experts suggest, a failing economy cannot be the driver of sustainable emissions reductions. The bottom line: in a recession no one wins. Instead, long term climate success must be built from the deployment of new, clean technology and economic growth.

As we recover from the pandemic and the global economy rebuilds, we expect to see emissions rebound to our previous levels. But, there is an additional danger that emissions may exceed previous levels. For instance, we may see more flights operating on popular routes as passengers resist being “sardined” next to other passengers and demand more personal space. Likewise, commuters with the option may decide to drive to work rather than share a train seat.

The uncertainty about how emissions will rebound, when, and in what way is being determined by Congress today. Many Americans (and Europeans) see upcoming recovery and infrastructure packages as a chance for a different future, arguing that the biggest question policymakers around the world need to confront is whether countries will use this moment to fund a green stimulus package. Yet, as David Victor wrote about the many possible futures, “…amidst great uncertainty, we often select mental models that feel most convenient and least disruptive to favored futures.” There are those wanting to expedite the green energy transition who see opportunity, but there are many more who operate legacy assets and are pushing for a quick return to business as usual. But, most importantly, any package that is passed needs to guard against a possible future where recovery results in higher levels of emissions than previously modeled.

Legacy asset holders should not fear if the Trump administration’s recent rollback of EPA emission standards (at the exact moment the world suffers through a respiratory pandemic) is any indication of what is to come. Which means enthusiastic clean energy boosters may need to find a way to spin magic from stimulus packages that do not explicitly earmark dollars for the green transition.  This tactic President Trump is using dismisses critical aspects of the recovery which do not align with his policy agenda, but that will ultimately make our public health and our economy more resilient.

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Cornelia Colijn

Executive Director
Cornelia Colijn is the executive director of the Kleinman Center. She envisions, plans, and manages all center programming, while building connections with students, faculty, and leaders in the energy industry.