Coronavirus Proves Only Structural Changes Can Avert Climate Apocalypse

We are still screwed if we do not permanently alter how we produce and consume energy as a civilization.
A new International Energy Agency report warns that while 2020 may see the largest CO2 emissions drop on record because of the coronavirus pandemic, there is still cause for concern.  The IEA anticipates carbon emissions will drop almost 8 percent—six tim

A new International Energy Agency report warns that while 2020 may see the largest CO2 emissions drop on record because of the coronavirus pandemic, there is still cause for concern.

The IEA anticipates carbon emissions will drop almost 8 percent—six times larger than the previous record caused by the 2008 global financial crisis and twice as large as the sum total of every reduction since the end of World War II. Global energy demand will fall 6 percent, which is seven times larger than the decline from the 2008 global financial crisis and equivalent to losing the entire energy demand of India. Renewables are the only energy source expected to see any growth in use (1.5 percent) or generation (3 percent), while oil demand will drop by 9 percent, coal by 8 percent, and natural gas by 5 percent.


All these numbers are staggering, but they are also inadequate. Despite the 70 year lows for each of these carbon energy sources and the IEA’s estimation that 50 percent of all global energy use is exposed to these global containment measures, we’re far from the reductions needed to avert climate catastrophe. Moreover, these reductions are inequitable and have come at a tragic personal cost to many. Structural changes (e.g. an internationalist Green New Deal that favors the working class) are necessary if we are to have any hope.

As Vox’s David Roberts writes, limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius—our only shot at avoiding hundreds of millions of deaths and widespread ecological collapse—means "emissions would need to fall off a cliff, falling by 15% a year every year, starting in 2020, until they hit zero." In fact, the emissions reduction we are on track to experience may yield no durable environmental benefits that last beyond the lockdowns as urban pollution, for example, will quickly return.

This insufficient but historic reduction is thanks to travel restrictions and economic lockdowns that have caused spikes in unemployment dwarfing those of the Great Recession and approaching Great Depression levels. In the United States alone, a country where nearly half of the population lives paycheck to paycheck, far more than the reported 30 million people have likely lost their jobs and a perpetual rent strike is developing as a growing plurality of tenants are simply unable to make ends meet. The full human cost of this pandemic has yet to emerge—its immediate death toll may be underreported, but it has obvious for months that the pandemic would make plain that our country views its most vulnerable populations as disposable.


“Resulting from premature deaths and economic trauma around the world, the historic decline in global emissions is absolutely nothing to cheer,” said Faith Birol, Executive Director of the IEA, in a statement. “And if the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis is anything to go by, we are likely to soon see a sharp rebound in emissions as economic conditions improve.”

Laura Cozzi, the main author of the IEA report, echoed the same concerns in a conversation with Motherboard, suggesting that these reductions would be erased and overtaken without serious steps.

"Every time we have a crisis, be it the financial crisis or some other shock, what you've seen is very consistent: the year or years around the crisis, you see a decline in emissions; the moment the economic activity resumes, emissions start growing again because we haven't fundamentally decarbonized our energy system on a structural level.”

Over the past few years, a great deal of noise has been made about the power individuals wield in the fight against climate change. “Consumer shaming” may have pushed Davos to offer “green fuel” for its elite attendees’ private jets but has done nothing to address that a great deal of our economic activity, from Amazon's business empire to long-haul air travel, is environmentally unsustainable. Capitalism relies on perpetual growth of production and consumption, irreconcilable with the decarbonization and degrowth we must aggressively pursue to avoid a climate genocide for island nations and the Global South.


Still, the fact that the IEA report points out that a large part of this global emissions and energy demand reduction comes from a 50 percent decline in global road transport activity and a 60 percent drop in aviation tells us that permanent structural reforms can be made there. Take just one area of the debate that gets taken up as an individual action item: car ownership.

Investing in green public transit and restructuring urban/suburban spaces to discourage car ownership, kill commuter culture, or simply be more green, all might allow us to individually reduce emissions, but more importantly fight the market logic that rationalizes annually producing and replacing tens of millions of cars or turning every plot of land into more roads, parking lots, highways, or another form of our concrete shrines to cars.

Cozzi is hopeful that this crisis might yield space for similar lessons or policies that hasten such transitions and eventually decarbonization. An upcoming study she’s working on looks at how climate policy can achieve the sort of sustainable individual and structural changes we need to avoid currently inevitable and dire scenarios.

“The centrality of a clean energy transition in stimulus packages is, for us, one of the key fundamental findings of these reports,” Cozzi said. "70 percent of energy investments are either directly led by governments or their regulations. The role of governments is not to be underestimated."

Of course, nothing is predetermined or a given. Politicians may not want to turn to a Green New Deal due to myriad hang-ups and ideological obstacles. In fact, it’s likely that they will not. But as with many other areas during the coronavirus pandemic, the changes we are seeing now can be blueprints for tomorrow’s mass civil action.