Coronavirus: When Meeting a National Emissions-Reduction Goal May Not Be a Good Thing

Scientists caution that the shorter-term fluctuations in emissions linked to Covid-19 can be misleading.

An empty mall in lower Manhattan on March 29, 2020
An mall in lower Manhattan on March 29, 2020, emptied out by the city's shelter-in-place order imposed to combat Covid-19. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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The sudden drop in emissions tied to the coronavirus means that Germany is now likely to meet a national goal for cutting emissions by the end of this year—a target that seemed nearly impossible just a few years ago.

Other countries may go through their own versions of this, finding that the virus-related drop in emissions is helping them to at least have the appearance of progress toward 2025 and 2030 goals under the Paris Agreement.

But don’t expect this to be the silver lining of the disastrous pandemic. Climate scientists and environmental advocates say any short-term drop in emissions gives a misleading sense of progress. This could do harm if it saps some of the urgency to address climate change at a time when there are many competing demands for public money and attention.

For example, Germany’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce is citing the recent drop in emissions and the economic downturn as reasons to delay implementation of a new carbon tax. It’s too soon to know if this call will find a receptive audience among the country’s political leaders.

Scientists and advocates are careful in how they talk about these emissions decreases, realizing that the coronavirus is catastrophic both for people and for economies worldwide.

The drop is due to a reduction in driving, flying and industrial activity. And, if previous economic shocks are any guide, it is likely to be followed by a rebound that cancels out any decrease.

“We should not be thinking in terms of little bounces up and down (in emissions) in the next three months, six months, twelve months,” said David Waskow of the World Resources Institute, a global research organization that focuses on sustainability.

“What we really need to be focused on is what does that trajectory look like in the next decade and what’s the approach to addressing emissions and climate impacts over the next decade? It’s a question of keeping eyes on the prize,” he said.

If there is anything positive to emerge out of the devastation left behind by the coronavirus, it is likely to be found in the potential for broader changes in public attitudes, not in a short-term drop in emissions, said Stephan Harrison, professor of climate and environmental change at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

“What COVID-19 has done is increase the scientific literacy of our population enormously,” he said. “That makes it much easier to make similar arguments about how we need to deal with climate change.”

’Not Good News for Climate Protection’

Germany set its emissions target in 2007 and has been working toward a goal of cutting emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by the end of 2020, a step toward getting close to zero by 2050.

In 2018, the German government said it was unlikely to meet the 2020 goal. This news helped to spur a redoubling of effort, part of a bigger picture that included the rise of student protests demanding action on climate change and several summers of unusually hot and dry weather. Last year, the German parliament adopted measures to phase out coal power by at least 2038, and to expand incentives for cutting emissions. Now, Germany is likely to meet its 2020 goal, largely because of the coronavirus.

According to the think tank Agora Energiewende, 2020 emissions are likely to be 40 to 45 percent down from 1990 levels, a decrease that seemed impossible two years ago.

“This is not per se good news for climate protection,” said Christoph Podewils, head of communication for the Berlin-based think tank, in an email. “On the one hand, emissions will rise again after the crisis, and on the other hand, a slowdown of investments relevant for climate protection is likely, for example in renewable energies, building refurbishment or for industry.”

Podewils said it is essential that economic stimulus actions include, or be done alongside, measures to guard against a rebound in emissions. And he pointed to the European Green Deal, a plan being developed by the European Union to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, as a policy framework that would help to make clear that new investments need to be made with climate change in mind.

The European plan is in the early stages but the virus has limited the ability of leaders to work on far-reaching climate rules.

Germany is unusual in having a high-profile emissions goal for 2020. Many other leading economies are looking at current emissions in terms of progress in meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement beyond 2020. Each country set its own carbon reduction targets, many of which have interim goals in 2030 on the way to an ultimate goal by mid-century. The country-specific targets are part of the larger goal of keeping the global increase in temperature to less than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Meanwhile, a business group is calling for exactly the kind of action that Podewils is warning against. Germany’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce has issued a position paper saying that the recent drop in emissions should “make further climate policy measures unnecessary for the time being.” The group is calling for a two-year delay in implementation of a new carbon tax for transportation and heating to allow businesses time to recover from the disruption caused by the virus.

An Illusion of Short-Term Progress

It’s not clear whether such calls for delays in climate action will gain traction in Germany. Scientists and environmental advocates have concerns that this is more likely to happen in other countries, like the United States.

The United States remains a party to the Paris Agreement, although the Trump administration has given notice that it will withdraw from the accord, a departure that would take effect in November. As part of the original agreement, the Obama administration set a target of cutting annual emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Emissions in the United States decreased last year, largely as a result of market forces that favor clean energy. With this cut, the country’s emissions were down 12 percent from 2005, according to a preliminary report from the Rhodium Group.

U,S, Emissions Falling Short of Goals

The report’s authors said in January that the country was “still a long way off” from being on track to meet a 2025 goal under the Paris Agreement, and likely to fall short in meeting its goal under an earlier climate plan, as well, the 2009 Copenhagen Accord. The effects of the coronavirus may reduce these gaps in the short-term, giving the appearance of progress.

The Rhodium Group also looked at China’s 2019 emissions and the early evidence of how the virus is shaping 2020 levels, but drew no firm conclusions. “Essentially, it’s just too soon to tell,” the report said.

Most of the evidence we have now from China and other hard-hit countries is short-term and anecdotal, such as satellite images from Italy showing a big drop in air pollution.

The key is to focus on the long-term trend, said Rachel Cleetus, climate and energy program policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“What we’re seeing right now is not the result of any deep policy shift or any deep change in the energy system,” she said. “This is just a harsh—temporary, I hope—economic impact that’s hurting ordinary people.”

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres made a similar point this month, saying that although emissions are down, “We will not fight climate change with a virus.”

The investment bank Raymond James is projecting that global carbon dioxide emissions will fall 2.5 percent this year, largely because of the economic disruption caused by the virus. This would be the largest decrease on record and only the fourth annual decrease in the last 30 years. And it would follow a year in which global emissions were essentially flat after two years of increases, according to the International Energy Agency.

Glen Peters, research director for the Center for International Climate and Environment Research in Norway, wrote this month that the drop in 2020 emissions would likely be in the range of 0.3 percent to 1.2 percent.

But forecasting 2020 emissions is a challenge, because we don’t yet know how long or how severe this economic disruption will be. IEA will be issuing a report in the next few weeks about how the virus is affecting emissions, a spokesman said.

An Opportunity for Social Change

Climate scientists and environmental advocates are tracking their countries’ progress on emissions goals and trying to communicate this to the public, often using charts that show how actual emissions compare to the levels needed to be on the right path.

At least for a year, those charts probably will have a blip that looks like sudden progress. Fossil fuel companies and climate skeptics may use this to argue against actions that would continue to reduce emissions.

“You’re never going to be able to convince the climate skeptics,” said Harrison.

But, he said, he is hopeful that the virus will make the public less likely to buy the arguments of climate skeptics. He sees this as a moment in which people are coming to appreciate the importance of experts, which has major implications for talking about climate change.

And it is now not much of a stretch for people to envision other scenarios, like climate change, in which the world is transformed by natural forces.

“People are recognizing that even highly complex societies like the United Kingdom and America are still very vulnerable to shocks from the natural world,” Harrison said.

This story has been updated to reflect a statement released by Germany’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce on April 1.

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