One of the questions we are regularly asked is: shouldn’t we be trying to reduce our emissions, rather than offsetting the emissions we are currently producing?
To be clear, we absolutely believe the first step in tackling climate change should always be reducing emissions. But at the same time, we are realistic about the fact that achieving our climate change targets within the necessary timeframe will require both a massive reduction in global emissions (most likely through a wholesale transformation of the energy industry) and active efforts to take CO2 out of the atmosphere.
This year’s lockdowns, due to COVID-19, have indirectly provided an enormous experiment in understanding how much of an effect radically reducing our activity could have on emissions. The headline is that when the lockdown peaked in early April, global emissions saw a maximum reduction of around -17% vs. 2019. Estimates suggest that for 2020 as a whole, global emission levels will have reduced by between 4% and 8%, partly depending on what level of lockdown continues for the rest of the year.
"The pandemic could lower global emissions for 2020 by 8%, but the UN estimate we need to cut emissions by 55% this decade...there's a long way to go"
To put this in perspective, according to the UN Environment Programme emissions gap report, we need to cut our carbon footprint by 55% by 2030 to limit global warming to 1.5C (as targeted in the Paris Agreement), even with more optimistic estimates, that’s an 8x increase on what 2020 will manage (and that’s with global lockdowns), and about 5x the level our current collective commitments have us on track to achieve.
This means that if we tried to meet our emissions targets by reducing emissions alone, we would almost need a global lockdown every year, which few would argue is a sustainable way to operate!
Do we believe that our behaviour is going to change as radically as it did during the lockdown, as quickly as we need it to, and in a lasting way?
The reality is that the pandemic showed us that we need to do far more than just reduce our travel and consumption to have any chance of preventing catastrophic climate change. In future blogs we will delve into how new technologies are creating opportunities for emissions prevention and reduction to work in tandem. But first, let's dive deeper into what actually happened to emissions this year.
So what was the impact of lockdown on emissions?
At the peak of the pandemic in early April, lockdowns had brought much of travel, commerce and leisure to a halt.
At this point, 89% of global emissions were in areas under some confinement and global emissions are estimated to have seen a maximum reduction of around -17% vs. 2019.
This compares to emission rates typically rising about 1% each year (though they were actually flat in 2019). At the lockdown’s peak, global emissions were effectively brought back to 2006 levels.
In the UK, with air traffic down 90%, ground transport down almost 75%, and offices and shops closed across the country, the estimated maximum emissions reduction was about 31%, and emissions for 2020 as a whole are expected to be down around 8% to 10%.
Where did these emission reductions come from?
In terms of fuel combustion, the aviation sector saw the largest fall in emission levels, with CO2 emissions from flights down -60%. The other sector to see a significant decline was surface transport (all cars, lorries, trains, shipping etc.), which saw a -36% decline in emissions.
With manufacturing sites closed, emissions from global industry fell -19%. But the reduction in global power production (electricity and heat) was much more moderate at -7%.
Residential emissions actually increased +3% during the pandemic, as we all spent more time at home; playing with the thermostat and cooking up a storm, though this was more than offset by emission savings in other areas.
Because surface transport is such a significant contributor to emissions, and saw a marked decline at the peak of the pandemic, it was by some distance the largest contributor to the reduction in emissions.
This meant the mix of global emissions from fuel combustion moved away from transport (both aviation and surface transport), but was instead increasingly attributable to power generation and residential use.
A fine balance: achieving environmental and economic progress
While the reductions in consumption brought about by the pandemic have led to environmental benefits, it’s important to remember that these will be accompanied by huge societal costs.
One study has estimated that the pandemic triggered the equivalent of 147 million full time job losses worldwide. Our social welfare systems have not been set up to deal with the diminished opportunity caused by such a dramatic fall in consumption. As a result, government spending and borrowing has had to increase significantly, and economic inequality is expected to widen.
“One study has estimated that the pandemic triggered the equivalent of 147 million full time job losses worldwide.”
Transitioning to a low carbon economy shouldn’t mean that we put millions of livelihoods at risk. A key aim of resolutions like the Green New Deal is to set out a plan for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 that also provides jobs and opportunities in communities that are currently dependent on the old economy.
This is not to say that there isn’t a huge amount of waste in our current system: 25% of all calories produced are wasted, and about 15% of all fabric ends up on the cutting room floor. There are many ways in which we should be working to consume fewer resources, and in the fashion industry, for instance, there are some great initiatives to encourage people to move away from fast, ‘disposable’ fashion, and towards either sustainable brands or second-hand / recycling schemes.
But we have to be realistic about the fact that for most people, renouncing all your possessions and living in the woods as a hermit, isn’t a practical means to tackle climate change. Without carbon offsetting, the lifestyle changes required to reduce your carbon footprint to net-zero, are simply unrealistic.
An opportunity to reassess
While there was concern that the pandemic would steal attention from the work that has to be done to combat the climate crisis, we think the change in lifestyle we have all had to undergo this year has still been a great opportunity to reassess our needs and priorities, and think about what we can and can’t do without. For businesses too, the impact on global trade will likely make local supply chains (which generally produce less emissions) a more attractive prospect.
It has also highlighted the need for individual responsibility (people wearing a mask, washing their hands) and collective action (governments providing employment subsidies, managing PPE supplies) to work in tandem. Hopefully, lessons will have been learned from this that can be leveraged to tackle climate change.
There have been many good news stories to come out of this from an environmental standpoint, particularly the noticeable reduction in pollution that spawned a thousand “nature is healing” memes.
While it is early days, there have been encouraging signs that there has been a change in mindset since the pandemic first struck; a recent survey by the Sustainable Restaurant Association saw 65% of diners admit concern about the environment, vs. 47% before lockdown measures were introduced, while two-thirds of diners said there were 'likely' or 'very likely' to try a more sustainable dish over their normal favourite.
At the community level, both the EU and China have highlighted green growth as a way out of the economic slump the virus has triggered. Action in the United States will likely depend on the result of November’s election, but just last week, Boris Johnson announced £160m to upgrade ports and factories for building wind turbines, as part of a UK government plan to 'build back greener'.
Right now, it is impossible to say what long-term effects the pandemic will have on our emissions pathway, but it has certainly highlighted the need for investment into a complete transition of the energy industry as well as projects to reduce the carbon in our atmosphere. It's vital we take advantage of the opportunity we have now to build on what could be a turning point in our emissions trajectory.