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Cars stuck in traffic

How COVID-19 affects the climate

biology, earth scienceJohn Gordon, Content DeveloperMay 29, 2020

Here’s a little secret: If you were to come to where I live and steal my car, I probably wouldn’t notice for at least a few days. Please don’t steal my car—I’m still paying for it, and also I think I have a beach towel in there that I would hate to lose. But because I’ve been able to work from home during the pandemic, and because I live within walking distance from a little grocery store, I’m not exactly wearing out my tires these days.

And I’m not at all alone. People are working from home, or they’re not able to work at all, or they just aren’t able to be out driving around in the world. Many of our lives have come to a relative standstill. One of the results of this is that carbon dioxide emissions are falling all around the world. Individuals are doing less stuff, so they’re consuming fewer fossil fuels, and, accordingly, they’re producing less carbon dioxide.

Among the overwhelmingly devastating effects of the pandemic, that, at least, is good news. Slowing the production of greenhouse gases will help slow the effects of climate change.

But there’s more to learn from this. See, experts are projecting that global CO2 emissions will decrease by up to to 8 percent this year due to the pandemic. That’s a lot! Here’s the downside: Climate scientists generally agree that to avoid the most catastrophic climate change scenario (in which global temperatures rise more than 1.5ºC), we need to lower CO2 emissions by 7.6 percent every year. Not just during the one or two years of a once-in-a-century pandemic, but every year.

Think about that. We need to keep dropping greenhouse gas emissions every year at the same level we have during a life-altering pandemic. Oof. That seems super intimidating (and it is), but it shouldn’t make you think, “We’ve done so much, and it’s not enough!” It should make you think, “There’s so much more we can do! We just need to focus our efforts in the right places.”

This news is a reminder that our personal “carbon footprints” are not the main source of greenhouse gases. The current CO2 decrease is a big deal, but the areas with the most potential for reduction are bigger, systemic sources. According to the EPA, transportation makes up 28 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in this country. About half of that comes from personal vehicles—a huge part of what we’ve reduced this year—while the rest is from planes, trains, freight trucks, ships, etc. A further 22 percent of emissions come from industry, 10 percent from agriculture, and 27 percent from power generation.

Industry, agriculture, and power generation can’t just go away, of course, and making reductions in those sectors’ emissions won’t necessarily be easy. But this signifies that we have opportunities to fight climate change that are far greater than reductions in personal transportation, if not directly, then indirectly. We can advocate for sensible regulations and investments in more efficient technology by voting and by contacting our representatives. We can support companies and products that show a genuine commitment to lowering their environmental impact.

If you’re looking for more information on how to reduce greenhouse gases—both personally and through collective action—check out our blog post on small steps you can take to make a big difference. Together, the small things we can do ourselves and the big things we can influence as a society could make a huge difference to our planet—no pandemic required.