Apr 24, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Coronavirus is a Rorschach test on how best to battle climate change

illustration of an ink blot test

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic is amplifying the debate over the relevance of individual behavior in fighting climate change.

Why it matters: The real-time experiment is lending itself to different takes on whether individual steps — as opposed to only systemic policy changes, cracking down on polluters and tech innovations — can play a major role in cutting emissions.

  • It's part of a wider debate over whether an emphasis on consumer choices and behavior — avoiding cars or going electric, flying way less, cutting out meat, living small and other steps — is misplaced or even counterproductive.

Driving the news: Lockdowns and curtailed economic activity are driving carbon emissions downward.

  • Some analyses see a 5%-6% year-over-year drop in global CO2 emissions in 2020, the largest on record, and even those estimates assume substantial recovery of activity later in the year.
  • But the reductions — occurring for tragic reasons that no sane person celebrates — are a sobering reminder of the climate challenge, too. Experts warn that holding warming significantly in check requires real cuts every year.
  • "By 2030, emissions would need to be 25 percent and 55 percent lower than in 2018 to put the world on the least-cost pathway to limiting global warming to below 2˚C and 1.5°C respectively," the UN estimated last year.

What they're saying: [T]he idea that our individual actions don’t particularly matter is fundamentally bogus. And over the past several weeks, the coronavirus has been revealing that in unexpected ways," Politico Magazine's Michael Grunwald wrote this week in a long piece I'm just partially summarizing.

  • He forthrightly notes there's "no way to solve climate change without major systemic change."
  • But the piece uses the current pollution cuts as a launchpad to challenge some activists who say an emphasis on individual behavior distracts from focusing on big fossil fuel companies and pushing for sweeping government policy changes.

But, but, but: "If this is all we get from shutting the entire world down, it illustrates the scope and scale of the climate challenge, which is fundamentally changing the way we make and use energy and products," Carnegie Mellon University energy expert Costa Samaras tells E&E News of the current reductions.

  • The story points out that "even today, with millions of people around the world stuck at home, the world economy is consuming vast quantities of fossil fuel and emitting large amounts of CO2."
  • "The dynamic highlights the limits of individual action and the need to transform how the economy is fueled," they report in summarizing comments from Indiana University professor Shahzeen Attari.

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