Keeping greenhouse gas emissions declining in a post COVID-19 world

As the world returns to a “new normal,” emissions could rise unless we act.

Frontier Group summer intern Christiane Paulhus wrote this blog post.

Like many of us, I’ve been thinking about what my summer would have been like had it not been for COVID-19.

I would have flown to and from Boston (from my home in Florida) for my summer internship and commuted to and from work each day. My family had also planned a trip to Italy to visit Rome, Florence and Venice.

While these exciting trips were much anticipated, they also would have produced a lot of carbon pollution. The flight miles alone would have totaled 2.88 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, the same as burning 3,173 pounds of coal.

Many people like me have been staying home during COVID-19, forgoing travel of all kinds for work and pleasure. And that has had a big impact on greenhouse gas emissions. But it hasn’t changed the fact that we need to make major, long-lasting changes in our economy if we are going to address climate change.

A carbon footprint is the greenhouse gases that are generated by the things we do in our daily lives. Transportation alone accounts for 44 percent of my personal carbon footprint and according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2018 study on Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sector, transportation accounted for 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide, more than any other sector of the economy. Emissions from the transportation sector include those from the burning of fossil fuels from cars, trucks, ships, trains and planes. 

It is no surprise, given the fact that many people have been forced to stay home, cancel travel, and halt much industrial activity, that there was a peak drop in daily global emissions of 17 percent and a total decline of over 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide -- equivalent to the amount of pollution produced by 2.4 trillion miles of driving in the U.S.

This dramatic pause in the world’s day to day functions and subsequent decline in greenhouse gas emissions returned carbon pollution to levels last seen in 2006. While the return to 2006 levels is a significant reduction, it is not nearly enough to keep global warming in check, especially as the world returns to a “new normal.”

So, what does the reduction in emissions that took place during the pandemic tell us about efforts to get even deeper emission reductions once the pandemic is over?

One lesson is that much of the carbon-intensive travel we cut out during the pandemic may not be necessary after all. The pandemic has forced many companies to reevaluate whether they can carry out their business meetings online. Business travel, which once made 60 percent to 70 percent of airline industry sales, may not ever go back to pre-COVID-19 levels. Public policy can reinforce some of the lifestyle changes resulting from the pandemic, such as policies that encourage telework and other online activities that reduce the need for lengthy trips by car, or support recreation near home instead of carbon-intensive cruises and international travel. During the COVID-19 crisis, some cities closed streets to automobile use in order to encourage pedestrians to use them for biking and walking instead, creating new travel habits that could last beyond the pandemic.

Beyond reducing travel demand, it is important to make transportation clean and to implement mass electrification. Seattle, for example, has an ambitious goal to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from transportation by 2050. Through Seattle’s Drive Clean Initiative, it is investing in energy efficient vehicles and cleaner fuels and is using public private partnerships and regulations to accelerate the process towards electrification. Seattle has also made plans to replace its municipal vehicles with electric versions by 2030.

While transportation emissions nosedived during the COVID-19 pandemic, other sectors of the economy saw more modest reductions or no reductions at all. Particularly buildings, electricity and manufacturing did not see as drastic declines. It will require other approaches, such as the extension and update of the Section 25C federal tax credit for homeowner investments in energy efficiency improvements to incentivize homeowners to invest in energy efficiency.

Reducing carbon pollution from other sectors of the economy will require bold and comprehensive action. The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis issued a report including proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It included proposals to limit energy use in new and existing buildings, deploy zero emission buses that will be cleaner for the environment, and put an end to deforestation by increasing funding for international assistance programs, such as USAID’s Office of Forestry and Biodiversity and Global Environment Facility.

With the right policies in place, we can ensure that our efforts towards eliminating the threats of climate change are met and that carbon emissions continue to decline in a post-COVID-19 era. 

Photo credit: Nheyob via Wikimedia Commons