A year ago, things were looking pretty grim, climate-wise. The president of the United States was a thug who thought climate change was a hoax and science was a conspiracy to remove him from office. In Oregon, when a bill came up to put a price on carbon, Republican legislators walked out of the capital to dodge the vote. Internationally, whatever momentum had been generated at the 2015 Paris climate agreement had dissipated. In Brazil’s Amazon, more than 4,200 square miles of rainforest were destroyed to create land for farming and cattle grazing. In the once-frigid Arctic, a record 32 million tons of goods were shipped on the mostly ice-free Northern Sea Route. The world was slouching towards climate hell.
Then Covid hit. The tiny SARS-CoV-2 virus, so small that 10 trillion of them weigh less than a raindrop, stopped everything. For a year, people have huddled in their homes, taking care of loved ones, grieving those they lost. Most of us didn’t fly, didn’t go out to dinner, didn’t go to clubs. Some of us lost jobs, homes, savings, hope. The toll the virus took on our hearts and minds and souls is beyond calculation.
What’s not beyond calculation, however, is the toll the shut-down took on the fossil-fuel economy. Natural gas wells were forced to shut down in Texas, pushing small producers into bankruptcy. With air travel stalled and driving curtailed, oil prices collapsed. At the beginning of 2020, the global price of oil hovered at about $60 a barrel. By April, it had dropped below zero. By August, the decline had been so rapid and so unsettling that ExxonMobil, once the defining American corporation of the 20th century, was delisted from the S&P 500.
The fossil-fuel collapse had a visible impact on our world. With air pollution curtailed, you could see blue skies again. With traffic gone, coyotes wandered the streets of San Francisco. Porcupines were seen in the ancient ruins of Rome. But most important of all, from a climate perspective, global CO2 emissions declined by 7 percent, or about 2 billion tons – the largest drop in emissions since World War II. In a few months, the virus accomplished what 30 years of climate negotiation could not. It put the nations of the world on track to cutting emissions fast enough to ensure a habitable planet.
But a pandemic is not a climate strategy, obviously. Yes, CO2 emissions declined, but more than 2.6 million people have died.
Now, as vaccination rates rise and the political focus shifts to getting the economy rolling again, the big fate-of-human-civilization-sized question is: Does the world go back to business as usual, or is this an inflection point where the inevitable and unstoppable transition to clean energy accelerates and CO2 emissions peak and out of the suffering and hardship of the pandemic a new world arises? To avoid climate catastrophe, industrial nations of the world need to cut CO2 emissions in half by 2030, and then reach net-zero emissions by 2050. It would be nice to believe that 2020 was the year we made the turn.
But optimism doesn’t come easy. The fossil fuel industry is deeply imbedded in the political machinery in every industrialized nation in the world. It’s much easier to green-light a gas pipeline – something everyone knows how to build – than to approve an off-shore wind farm, which has a very different political constituency and requires thinking differently. And building pipelines instead of wind farms is pretty much what happened after the 2008-2010 financial crisis, when the governments of leading economies pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy and rebuilt it more or less the same way it had been before.
There are signs that’s happening again. In December 2020, global CO2 pollution for the month was 2 percent higher than in December 2019. In China, by far the world’s largest polluter in sheer tonnage (on a per-capita basis, U.S. emissions are much higher), CO2 emissions increased by 4 percent in the second half of 2020. By the end of 2020, China, India, and Brazil — three of the biggest polluters on the planet — were already above their 2019 emissions. “This is a stark reminder of the urgent need to accelerate global clean energy transitions,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, warned.
More importantly, the latest, most ambitious pledges that countries have put out ahead of this November’s COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow have been nowhere near what is necessary to hit the targets for 2 C, much less 1.5 C. So far, 75 countries, representing about 30 percent of global emissions, have announced new targets. A recent report by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change found that, even if these pledges are carried out (hardly a sure thing), they would only cut global emissions by 1 percent by 2030.
“Our leaders are failing mankind completely,” climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted. “And media is letting them get away with it.”
Finally, there is the problem of the so-called “green stimulus” economic packages that major nations are proposing to get their economies rolling again post-Covid. A recent paper in Nature analyzed the investments targeted in these packages and concluded that, with a few exceptions, “investments continue to be overwhelmingly dominated by fossil fuels in most countries, including in the United States and China.”
Another study, by Vivid Economics, a UK consulting firm, found that current stimulus spending in 30 key countries amounts to about $14.9 trillion, of which $4.6 trillion is flowing into sectors that are climate-related, including industry, energy, waste, agriculture, and transport. Of that, only about $1.8 trillion is going to projects that will have climate benefits in the form of lower greenhouse gas emissions, higher efficiency, or cutting pollution.
By contrast, about $2.8 trillion of current stimulus spending is going to sectors that will raise emissions or increase pollution. According to the study, these new economic packages are so far failing even to reach the levels of green spending in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Only about 12 percent of the spending on today’s economic rescue packages is going toward low-carbon projects. In comparison, about 16 percent of stimulus spending after the 2008 crisis was devoted to low-carbon projects.
But there is another way of looking at all this.
First of all, what really matters is not whether CO2 emissions peak in 2020 or 2019 or 2021. Every molecule of CO2 we dump into the atmosphere warms the planet and increases the risk of climate impacts. Climate change is a problem of accumulated emissions over time. What matters is the long-term trajectory, not what happens in any one year. The longer it takes for the decline to begin, the steeper the fall has to be to get to net zero by 2050. It’s the road to zero that is important. Driving and flying less is good. Eating less meat is good. Not financing any new coal plants is good. Building a no-bullshit, politically active climate movement is really good. But don’t let everyday advances and setbacks distract you from the ultimate goal, which is to deconstruct the entire fossil fuel infrastructure of our world and repower it with carbon-free energy.
Fossil fuels are a sand castle waiting to be washed away by the rising tide of innovation and political action. The outlines of a post-fossil-fuel world are visible everywhere: The cost of solar and wind energy has plummeted in the past decade. In some parts of the world, electricity from new solar is now cheaper than old coal. China has committed to net-zero emissions by 2060. GM, the Papa Bear of the U.S. auto industry, has vowed to go all electric by 2035. Volvo will be fully electric by 2030. A top oil and gas lobbying group is openly backing a carbon tax. Meanwhile, as injustices of the climate crisis become more visible, the coalition of people demanding political action is broadening.
But at this point, if the pandemic is going to be a transition in the climate fight, President Biden is going to have to make it one. The U.S. is the only nation with the money and the political power to accelerate this transition and spin the economic wind turbine of the world in a new direction. Now that the Covid stimulus package has passed the Senate, Biden will move on to his mammoth $2 trillion “Build Back Better” climate and infrastructure plan, which is next on his agenda. The plan, the details of which have not been publicly revealed yet, are expected to include billions of dollars in road and highway repair, as well as investments in clean energy, climate adaptation and climate justice. In short, the goal is to hasten the end of fossil fuels and hasten the preparations for life in a rapidly warming world.
For Biden, it’s a huge bet on the future, on the idea that the quickest route to jobs and prosperity is through the green fields of climate action. To get there, he will have to go through or around the entire Republican Party, which is beholden to the fossil fuel mafia. There will be the usual rants on the floor of the House and Senate about the natural cycles of the Earth’s climate in the geologic past, and of course the fake sky-is-falling economic studies to incite riots over the shutdown of gas wells. If Biden can get a package through Congress that is bold enough to signal that America sees the energy transition as a world-changing event that is happening now, it might inspire equally ambitious proposals from other nations. The fear of being left behind, both economically and morally, is a powerful motivator to take action.
In the end, the climate fight has always been about more than technology or CO2 molecules in the sky. It’s about political and economic inertia, and how you find the leverage to turn around the biggest ocean liner ever built. It’s also about how we think about the world we live in, and about our relationship with each other. “I think the pandemic has woken people up to the fragility of life itself, and the interconnectedness of nations in ways that just underscore we’re all in this together,” U.S. climate envoy John Kerry told me a few weeks ago.
That sounds corny, like a fairy tale ending to a deadly and devastating pandemic. But I’d like to live in a world where it turns out to be true.