Corona Crisis Reveals We Need Systemic, not Just Individual Change

April 28, 2020

Climate change is not your fault.

The fossil fuel industry has been spending a lot of money to subtly introduce the idea that if only you, just you, would change your wasteful habits, then maybe climate change wouldn’t be so bad. They started doing it with those benign “Check your Carbon footprint” ads years ago, and it continues today.
But the current crisis has shut down flying, most driving, and kept millions inside their homes, and while we’ve seen lower particulates in the air, leading to those beautiful photos of clear views from Los Angeles to Mumbai, carbon emissions have dropped in only a minor way.

Mute proof of what I’ve been telling people for years. If you and I and our 100,000 closest friends move to the woods to subsist on nuts and berries, the impact on carbon and climate would be minimal to none.
We live in a system that has to end its reliance on burning fossil fuels – that’s it.

New Republic:

In the United States, the fight against climate change is often framed as a matter of individual action toward a collective goal. If only Americans would drive and fly less and consume more sustainable energy and food, then maybe our country could do its part to help reduce carbon emissions worldwide.

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic are a sobering rejoinder to such hopes. With much of the world in lockdown, road traffic and air travel have decreased significantly. The air in major cities like Los Angeles and New York is clearer than it’s been in decades, revealing skylines and mountain ranges previously obscured. We have never had a clearer example of how changes to individual behavior, on a mass scale, can make a real difference. And yet, as drastically as our lives have been circumscribed in recent weeks, new data shows that this would not be enough to save the planet—even if it were somehow sustainable.

Carbon Brief, a website in the United Kingdom, has estimatedthat the pandemic could wind up cutting global carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 by 5.5 percent—“the largest annual fall in CO2 emissions ever recorded, in records going back to the 18th century.” Another report predicts a 5 percent reduction this year, based on anticipated economic stagnation in the months ahead. Any drop in emissions, which currently aren’t being reduced fast enough to curb global warming, would normally be good news. But with such dramatic changes to the ways we conduct our lives, a 5 percent reduction feels like poor payoff. Climate experts aren’t celebrating. If anything, they say, this comparatively mild and temporary reduction shows how desperately we need comprehensive climate policy—to reduce emissions in a truly systematic, sustainable way.

In order to hit the aspirational target of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) outlined in the Paris Agreement, emissions would need to fall by about 7.6 percent every year for the next decade. Even the 5 percent reduction estimated for this year wouldn’t be enough—and the way we’ve gotten to that reduction is not sustainable in the long term. Although they are necessary to halt the spread of the coronavirus, stay-at-home orders are already affecting the emotional, physical, and financial well-being of millions of people. And, experts say, as soon as businesses begin to reopen, we’ll likely see a push to ramp up production and erase most or all of these environmental gains.


“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.

Transportation makes up a little over 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. (In the United States, it makes up around 28 percent.) That’s a significant chunk, but it also means that even if all travel were completely carbon-free (imagine a renewable-powered, electrified train system, combined with personal EVs and battery-powered airplanes), there’d still be another 80 percent of fossil fuel emissions billowing into the skies.

So where are all those emissions coming from? For one thing, utilities are still generating roughly the same amount of electricity — even if more of it’s going to houses instead of workplaces. Electricity and heating combined account for over 40 percent of global emissions. 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 isn’t 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 the United States, 60 percent of electricity generation still comes from coal, oil, and natural gas. (There is evidence, however, that the lockdown is shifting when people use electricity, which has some consequences for renewables.)

Manufacturing, construction, and other types of industry account for approximately 20 percent of CO2 emissions. Certain industrial processes like steel production and aluminum smelting use huge amounts of fossil fuels — and so far, Schmidt says, that type of production has mostly continued despite the pandemic.

In the middle of the pandemic, it’s become common to point to clear skies in Los Angeles 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 (think cow burps) keep releasing methane.

“I think people should bike instead of driving, and they should take the train instead of flying,” said Schmidt. “But those are small, compared to the really big structural things that haven’t changed.”

It’s worth remembering that a dip in carbon emissions won’t lead to any changes in the Earth’s 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 warming.


18 Responses to “Corona Crisis Reveals We Need Systemic, not Just Individual Change”

  1. pendantry Says:

    Reblogged this on Wibble.

  2. Good post. I’d be interested to see a chart of which activities emit the most CO2. Do you know of one? The raw data. Presumably, you had access to something similar to write this post? Do you have a link?

  3. Sir Charles Says:

    We need a two tier approach. Systemic and individual. People need to get much more informed about AGW and the outcome. Only then the public will accept change.

    Re livestock and methane => Oil and gas is sector top source of US methane emissions, ahead of agriculture

    If you want to find more on this issue, click “All issues” on the page and look for keywords.

    Also see here => New Permian Methane Leakage Study Confirms What We Already Knew

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        It’s even worse than described. Every atom of carbon that a cow belches as methane was pre-scrubbed from the atmosphere. In ten years, the methane that cow belched is CO2, and that CO2 should not be ascribed as a GHG emission against that cow for the next 5,000 years. But, of course, it IS ascribed which is totally unfair to Bessie.

        But the carbon in the methane from those gas wells is NEW carbon, added to the system. So, it’s GHG AGW forcing is 10 years as methane, and 5000 years as CO2. That’s hella worse than cow methane.

        Cow methane in perspective:

        Domestic ruminants (cows, goats, sheep, buffalo, camels) are – 89 Tera-grams of CH4 per year.
        Cows are less than half of all domesticated runinants.
        Domestic ruminants are maybe 1/2 of all ruminants on Earth? Yet, the EPA doesn’t bother to count the GHG emissions of non domesticated ruminants.

        Some examples of methane sources:

        Rice crops – 36 Tg
        Termites – 11 Tg
        Wetlands – 217 Tg
        Landfills and Waste – 75 Tg
        Freshwaters – 40 Tg
        Fossil fuels – 96 Tg [this figure is old, and probably way low]

        Total methane load – 690 Tg
        Total methane sinks – 604 Tg

        Domestic ruminants – 89Tg – = 12.9%

        So, 87.1 % of methane emissions are from things other than domesticated ruminants. That is likely a way low estimate, since the EPA doesn’t count all sorts of natural methane emissions – a huge one would be biomass, the rotting of grasses, etc. Soil release IS measured and biomass burning is measured. Weird, but I believe they are correcting this.

        So, we know about methane from fossil fuels, but if you were to ask Joe Average on the street where is the bad methane coming from – he would say: “Cows”.
        Domestic cattle (guessing) 45 Tg = 6.5% At least 95.5% of GHG CH4 is from something besides cows.

        But, somehow, beef is the problem. (!)

  4. redskylite Says:

    I like this article, it still put’s the 1.5 degree goal as achievable. I was shocked by the number of people who immediately accepted the recent attack on renewables, which has failed fact checking miserably.

    We cannot win the fight with that spirit.

    To many people are just ready to fold, give up, and yield to negative Earth business interests.

    We won’t win unless the vast majority of people accept that it is our steadfast duty.

    And we are not yet at that point.

    But this point in human history is a major milestone, we could go either way.

    “Every sector and every company has a role to play in supporting the pursuit of the global goals. Aligning corporate ambition with these international commitments is the measuring stick defining leadership, and mitigation hierarchies provide the roadmap to prioritize actions and timing. As companies develop their 2030 goals, prioritize avoid and reduce to align pathways with science and only then focus on “extra credit” compensation mechanisms.”–and-only-after-thatCompensate

  5. redskylite Says:

    Maybe it will take a whole new generation to be sufficiently motivated to tackle it energetically. Let’s hope it’s not too late by then.


    “Climate and COVID-19 is an unfathomable pairing of catastrophes. One will surely intersect with the other in ways not yet clear. This much is: For huge numbers of young people, the virus will become a defining moment in their formative years and the economic hardship unleashed will almost certainly shape their worldview in the same ways the 1930s Great Depression raised its children to become frugal adults.

  6. Sir Charles Says:

    Record Ozone Hole Over the Arctic Has Closed

    While the COVID-19 lockdowns have improved air quality around the world and helped wildlife, the drops in pollution did not cause the ozone hole to close up.

    “COVID19 and the associated lockdowns probably had nothing to do with this,” CAMS said on Twitter. “It’s been driven by an unusually strong and long-lived polar vortex, and isn’t related to air quality changes.”

  7. Gingerbaker Says:

    “Climate change is not your fault.”


    Every one of us contributes to climate change. We all make conscious and unconscious decisions to do things that result in unnecessary emissions.

    Every time we purchase a ICE vehicle, every time we turn the key in its ignition, every time we fill up its gas tank. We all know we should have bought a BEV.

    Every time we install a fossil fuel-burning boiler or furnace.We all know we could have sprung for heat pumps.

    Every time we argue against maintaining if not increasing RE subsidies.

    Every time we vote for a candidate who does not get exercised over our actions, and the actions of industry and government.

    Climate change IS our fault. It is the fault of government, of industry perhaps more than us, but we are legion. And, supposedly, we have a say in how government and industry operate. We all could do more.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      agree with everything you say here, but my point is there has been a deliberate messaging campaign to take the focus off the fossil fuel industry’s 30 year misinformation campaign, and place it on individuals.

      MMoore’s movie is an extension of that, and adds a racist spin, with the messaging that “if only all those pesky brown skinned people would stop reproducing we’d be ok”.

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