Why 2020 does NOT solve the CO2 problem

March 7, 2021
Empty airport terminal
Photo by Lei Jiang on Unsplash
By Rima in 

Carbon dioxide, CO2, emissions, these are the first words that spring into most people’s minds whenever the topic of climate change comes up.

Maybe that’s how it should be. It oversimplifies things a bit of course, there are plenty of other greenhouse gases that contribute to our rapidly warming atmosphere. There are the problems caused by deforestation, and the death of coral, all of these are also huge issues, but solving them will be meaningless if we don’t do something about all that CO2. 

According to the UN, we need to cut global emissions by about 8% each year up to 2030 to keep global warming below 2°C. Probably it should be encouraging to note that 2020 was the first year since World War II when the CO2 emissions went down, but it wasn't a conscious environmental choice. The Covid-19 pandemic helped the emissions numbers to drop last year, but it is just a one time event and I’m sure we all want to avoid it again in the future. 

As great as this temporary drop in emissions might have been, the pandemic drastically affected economies and soon we will face the ‘reopening’ of many industries that have been partially on hold. In some places things hardly stopped at all, and manufacturing in China went on almost unabated, on a massive scale and still run almost exclusively using fossil fuels. 

Some people will hail the fact that there were less planes in the sky and say that will have had a massive impact, but did you know that air transport actually made up only about 2.5% of the total CO2 emitted globally in 2018 (we still don't have the data for 2020). Maybe that still sounds like a lot, but aviation makes up just 12% of the total transportation emissions, what about the other 88%?

Oh, by the way, as you are reading this digital text, spare a thought for the fact that the internet creates a similar amount of CO2 annually as the air travel industry, and as millions more people worked and studied from home during the last year, our online contribution to emissions will have gone up. 

Glen Peters, a research director of the International Climate Research project in Norway and a member of the Global Carbon Project, has this to say:

"The climate system is driven by the total amount of CO2 put in the atmosphere over centuries. Even though emissions fell in 2020, they were still around the same levels as in 2012, and the drop is insignificant in comparison with the total amount of CO2 emitted over the past centuries. Global warming stops when emissions get to around zero, and Covid-19 has not changed that."

There is no doubt that pandemic restrictions caused drops in the amount of fossil fuels used for both electricity generation and transportation, by 11% in the EU, 12% in the USA and 1.7% in China, according to research from the University of East Anglia, the University of Exeter, and the Global Carbon Project. The question is if these reductions are sustainable or if the numbers are going to bounce back up to the same or higher levels as industry cranks into overdrive to catch up on missed profits. 

The big question is how do we capitalise on this downward trend and keep it going in the right direction?

Maybe we shouldn’t just focus on the level of damage that each individual sector of industry and each country does, maybe it doesn’t help so much to demonize some industries (like air travel) and put others up on a winner’s podium. We need to find bigger overreaching solutions, ways to work together to solve the problem or to start with at least to stop emissions accelerating again. 

It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about individuals, government, big businesses, small businesses, or any other kind of organisation, we all are responsible for both our own and the collective CO2 footprint. A huge shift is needed, it is not enough to make emissions neutral. We need to go positive and global, take responsibility and make changes.  

Let’s look at one of the countries that could be called out as a big part of the problem – China. They have a massive manufacturing industry and very little of it is powered by renewable energy. We have absolutely no control over what kind of power these factories consume, but we do have the choice to stop buying the cheap and unsustainable goods that they produce. 

Even manufacturing businesses that don’t care at all about their environmental footprint care about sales and profits, and if they see that those things are dropping with the indication that a change to more sustainable and ethical production would turn things around then of course they will go in that direction. 

Manufacturing isn’t the only problem; electricity generation, transportation, agriculture, land and forest management, the construction industry, commercial offices and residential properties all have their parts to play as well. We need to be aware of where every product and service that we consume comes from and how sustainable it is, and we need to look at the small print. Even a lot of self-proclaimed eco-friendly industry is actually still far away from being part of the circular economy or as green as it could be. 

So, we need to be aware that even this year of global lockdown was only a tiny step in the right direction for carbon emissions, but that we need to keep the numbers moving in the same direction.

Maybe we also need to remember why we have a problem with CO2 in the first place. There is nothing wrong with Carbon dioxide in itself, we need it, and the plants we share the planet with need it. The problem is simply with the sheer amount of if that is emitted unnaturally due to human activities.

We are upsetting the natural balance of the atmosphere, forming an invisible layer  that traps heat and doesn’t let it dissipate as normal – the greenhouse effect, and if you have ever spent much time gardening then you’ll surely agree that living in a greenhouse is far from a fun idea. 

We first published this article in the Platforma EKO newsletter Towards SustainabilityIssue 8 - February 2021.

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