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2020 saw a record drop in emissions—but it’s not the climate win it should be

There are ways to get this kind of climate win without also experiencing all the simultaneous pain.

2020 saw a record drop in emissions—but it’s not the climate win it should be
[Photo: Tonkovic/iStock]
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After a record breaking wildfire season that burned more than four million acres on the West Coast, and a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season that included 30 named storms (12 of which made landfall), the news that carbon emissions would drop a record 2.4 billion tonnes in 2020 seemed like a turning point for the climate. But taking a look around makes it clear that it had incredible costs. It’s a lesson in how we should—and shouldn’t—plan on lowering emissions in the future.

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The 2.4 billion tonne deficit in 2020 was the equivalent of taking 500 million cars off of the world’s roads. “But we also need to remember that when you combine fossil emissions with land use emissions, we still will emit 40 billion metric tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere,” says Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth Sciences at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project. “That’s the number that really matters.”

Of course, the drop in our emissions came not because of smart climate policies, but because of COVID-19-related lockdowns that stopped commutes and shuttered businesses. That means that it required immense tragedy to achieve—and that there’s no indication that this drop in emissions will continue year over year, which is what’s required to decrease emissions enough to meet climate goals.

We’re already seeing this in China, where emissions are essentially back to 2019 levels. China had a shorter lockdown than the U.S., but even still, as their economic growth returned, so did their carbon emissions. It’s an example of how untenable this emissions drop is long term. “We don’t want emissions to drop because tens of millions of Americans are out of work, or hundreds of millions of people around the world,” Jackson says. “That’s not a sustainable path to climate action.”

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But it doesn’t have to be that way. Climate experts have tried to drive home this point all year, that there are ways to get this kind of climate win without also experiencing all the simultaneous pain. The economy doesn’t have to suffer in order to decrease emissions; we can decarbonize the economy, create clean energy jobs, and get economic growth, Robbie Orvis, director of energy policy design at the nonprofit Energy Innovation, noted earlier this year. Global Footprint Network founder Mathis Wackernagel, when explaining how the pandemic moved back Earth Overshoot Day (the marker of when we’ve used up a year of our planet’s resources) pointed out that the goal is to move this date back “by design, and not by disaster.”

An important thing to watch going into 2021, Jackson says, is how stimulus funding is allocated for economic recovery. Unfortunately, so far, except for in Europe, “very little funding has gone to clean energy and tech,” he says, though the incoming Biden administration could change that in the U.S. The decisions we make next will matter far more than the fact that emissions dropped in 2020, and that impact will be felt for years to come. “We’re still reaping the benefits today of stimulus funding from 10 years ago,” Jackson says. “The record low solar and wind electricity prices we have today are because of stimulus funding went to provide incentives for renewable energy in the last recovery.” Those investments are still paying dividends today, he adds, and the investments we make now—in transportation like bike paths and electric vehicles and in more clean energy opportunities—could benefit us all for decades in the future.

A record drop in CO2 emissions isn’t a clear win; we are still so far from the finish line. What we need to do now is sustain that decrease while building back the economy—which is possible. At least two dozen countries have grown their economies while reducing their carbon emissions, and in the U.S. alone 41 states have done the same. “It isn’t climate and the environment or jobs, it can be both,” Jackson says.

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Besides the drop in emissions, there have been other climate wins in 2020, like the fact that coal production dropped more than 20% in the second quarter of the year. It’s also notable that while overall electricity generation decreased by 3% this year, wind and solar still went up about 13%. “I don’t think the emissions drop because of a health and economic crisis should be the story of the year. I thought the story of the year would be the structural changes in clean energy production,” he says. That increase in wind and solar, even as electricity use dropped, is an actual win. “That’s something to celebrate,” Jackson says. “Those emission reductions will be sustained for decades.”