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COVID-19 Is Irrelevant for Emissions

Updated: Mar 22, 2020

This week all counties in the San Francisco bay, where I live, declared that residents should “shelter in place” because of the coronavirus. We have the same eerie existence that other places started experiencing months ago. This gives me more time to obsess about the news while I sit at home, where I have seen too many articles pointing out that the virus has reduced travel, and therefore led to reductions in CO2 emissions.


This is true. There has been a big temporary drop. But the thing is, this temporary emissions reduction doesn’t matter.


For climate change, what matters is getting to zero emissions as soon as possible. Does the current downturn help us do this? No it doesn’t. Will emissions go up to previous levels once the virus is finished? Obviously yes. It would be absurd to think that Kentucky and China and Poland would all of a sudden close down their coal plants just because they hadn’t used them quite as much for a few months.


Imagine that someone is slowly pouring poison into your city’s swimming pool at some rate. Say it’s a bottle of poison per day. Maybe you can distract him, which gets him to stop for several hours, though you know that after that he’ll just start back up at the same rate indefinitely. Is this hours-delay a cause for rejoicing?


Those who have been writing about the climate benefits of COVID-19 are misunderstanding the nature of the problem. Because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years, it is the total accumulated emissions over the course of recent human history that matter.


The timescales are mismatched. Most current infrastructure---coal plants, natural gas plants, transportation running on fossil fuels---can continue to operate for decades, and more such infrastructure is still being built. Compare that to the half-year during which we’ll (apparently) be emitting about 75% of normal quantities. You shouldn’t be optimistic. You shouldn’t be pessimistic either---the direct effects of COVID-19 are either neutral or unpredictable on the climate question.


A different and seemingly plausible argument is that a temporary reduction in emissions at least buys us time. I haven’t seen this argument being made, but it would be better than the reasoning I do see. In other words it might buy us time to research new technology, to deploy new technology, to pass new strong laws. Perhaps one year or so of reduced emissions really would make a difference, if society could continue making progress on those fronts.


But that reasoning doesn’t hold when society and the economy are nearly frozen. These emissions have dipped, but all the progress in fighting climate change necessarily has dipped as well. COVID-19 slows laboratory research and negatively affects solar panel manufacturing, and legislators are certainly not focusing on climate in the middle of a pandemic.


I could link to several articles that claim the virus is good for climate, but I’ll single out a February “Climate Fwd” newsletter from the New York Times. In the first half of the article, they discuss the reasons that emissions have declined in China. The author instructs the reader that this is a “significant” change: “China is such a huge industrial polluter that even a temporary dip like this is significant: The three-week decline is roughly equal to the amount of carbon dioxide that the state of New York puts out in a full year (about 150 million metric tons)...”


Unfortunately, it isn’t significant unless it’s permanent. 150 million metric tons would be relevant if it were a lasting reduction, and if it were the consequence of systematic changes to the energy system. But this isn’t the case.


To be fair, that article does bring up the impermanence of the emissions change, and even suggests there will be an emissions backlash. “For one thing, it’s likely that China’s emissions will quickly rebound when the outbreak is finally contained,” it reads. It even suggests this could be worse than one would expect: “...in the past, China’s factories have tended to ramp up production to make up for lost output or temporary shutdowns.” But this is added as a caveat, as a sort of covering-our-bases counterargument to the thesis. The reader is still left with the impression that the emissions downturn is relevant.


You might argue against my complaints, saying that newspapers just want a good headline, and that they are in fact being honest, and that they point out the arguments on all sides. But the problem is that the headline and implicit thesis are both leading to an incorrect conclusion. People tend to only skim most articles, and they’ll be left with the vague conclusion that short-term reductions in emissions actually matter.


But is there anything positive that comes from the economic slowdown of COVID-19, in terms of climate change? I can see one. Even though this virus isn’t caused by climate change, it may help citizens and politicians realize (much more than the wildfires in California and Australia) how civilization-threatening the upcoming climate disasters will be. We can now point to the pandemic as an approximation to what long term climate disasters will be like. More people might learn that what we face is massive crop failures, decade-long droughts, sunken cities, famine-caused wars, and economic collapse. Society on its knees, despite having decades of warning.


When it comes to climate change, the only changes worth celebrating are systematic reductions in emissions per unit of energy produced. And there are many developments that should make you feel optimistic. The price of solar and wind are way down. Battery prices (essential for storing wind and solar energy) are sinking faster than predicted. Coal lies in hospice. Several governments are passing laws requiring 100% clean electricity within a couple decades. These are what will defeat the climate crisis, not some momentary emissions downtick caused by a temporarily paraplegic economy.

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