Why COVID-19 Is Not a Climate Change Fix

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Even with the rapid decline in carbon emissions since the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, it still isn't enough. It does, however, give us an opportunity to rethink our consumption patterns once the threat of the virus eases. We can decide how the new normal could look.

Both pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are down due to the COVID-19 pandemic but that is not enough to fix climate change. “COVID-19 is by no means a silver lining for the environment,” said the head of the UN Environment Programme, Inger Andersen.

The pandemic could cause emissions reduction this year by around 2,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, analysis by Carbon Brief shows. That is equivalent to 5.5 percent of the global total last year. “As a result, the coronavirus crisis could trigger the largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions in 2020, more than during any previous economic crisis or period of war,” according to the analysis. However, that will not “come close” to bringing us towards the 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature limit climate scientists say is the limit needed to spare the world from the worst climate change impacts.

Medical waste is increasing due to the pandemic

Andersen pointed out that the pandemic will “result in an increase in the amounts of medical and hazardous waste generated.” Verge reported that in Wuhan, where COVID-19 originated, officials built a medical waste plant because hospitals there had six times more medical waste at the peak of the pandemic there than they did before it occurred. At one point daily medical waste reached 240 metric tons. Medical waste in the U.S. is already increasing, according to Verge.

More medical waste means more waste ending up in landfills which translates into more methane emissions. Methane is a greenhouse gas with a warming potential 30 times greater than carbon dioxide.

Government climate action is needed in the U.S.

Global emissions would need to decrease by around 7.6 percent a year this decade, which is almost 2,800 metric tons of carbon in 2020, to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, a UNEP report last year stated. The economy needs to be decarbonized, and for that to happen in the U.S. an electricity supply that is carbon-free is needed, which will require regulations for power plants, clean energy standards, and carbon pricing. Carbon pricing on industrial emissions is needed plus vehicle and fuel economy standards in line with zero emissions for new cars in 2030, and clean building standards.

We are far from any of that with the Trump administration. President Trump over the years has called climate change “mythical,” “non-existent,” and “an expensive hoax.” Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it temporarily suspended environmental laws during the pandemic, with the policy applying retroactively to March 13, 2020. Before that announcement, Trump’s environmental policies have been abysmal at best. In 2018, EPA enforcement of actions declined to their lowest levels in many years, a report by the Environmental Integrity Project found.

Consumption needs to decrease

Not only is government action needed to keep warming to 1.5 degrees. Consumption habits need to change. Global household consumption accounts for more than 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, a 2015 study discovered. Wealthier countries consume more than poorer countries. And Americans consume more than anywhere else.

The University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems details American consumption habits. The average American in 2010 took in 2,507 calories daily while the average American in 1970 only ate 2,054 calories. Extra calories not only mean more food needs to be produced but also more food waste. More food ended up in landfills in 2015 than any other trash. The average North American household uses about 240 gallons of water a day. Per capita consumption of all materials in the U.S. in 2000 was 52 percent higher than the European average. The average U.S. home size has increased by 45 percent since the 1970s, which translates to more energy consumption. The U.S. consumes 17 percent of the world’s energy yet accounts for less than five percent of the world’s population and 15 percent of world GDP.

What all of that means is that Americans use too much of the world’s resources. That has to change. As Andersen says: 

Indeed it does.

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