Year 2020: Last Chance to Avoid Rebound into Carbon Chaos

July 1, 2020

The decisions made during the remainder of this year – a mere 6 months – to recover economically from the COVID-19 crisis, are likely to determine the practical actions set in motion for the next 3 years, in terms of controlling carbon emissions, and thence the course of the climate crisis up to 2050… and beyond.

It is now part of the public psyche that to mitigate climate change requires curbing our use of fossil fuels, although the vast scale of this, as necessary to check global warming to within necessary limits, is less readily comprehended. Likewise, that there should be such a large difference in consequences between a rise of 2 degrees Celsius, and one of just half a degree less than this, is not immediately obvious, until the massive amount of additional energy absorbed into the Earth system that this represents, is appreciated.

It is sometimes tempting to despair that zero-carbon will be attained by 2050, and the chances of doing so by 2030 appear far less compelling. Nonetheless, the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions that have been “achieved” as an inadvertent consequence of locking down to control the transmission of the coronavirus, by almost one sixth in April 2020, compared with 2019 levels, might be taken to indicate that significant progress along this path is indeed possible. The question arises, however, of whether such an ameliorated emissions level might be preserved in the longer run, but the subsequent “rebound” in CO2 being poured into the atmosphere to within about 5% of 2019 levels, somewhat dilutes optimism about this.

Clearly, by simply curbing the milliard tonnage of fossil fuels that we burn, COemissions would be attenuated, but with economic catastrophe as an unwelcome bedfellow. Huge sums of money are being pledged by governments across the globe this year, to stimulate their economies post COVID-19, totalling $9 trillion. Since, with the aid of these fiscal booster-jabs, the die will be cast for the global economy over the next 3 years, how the money is spent is critical, and if it does not coincide with a dramatic and permanent fall in CO2 emissions, climate targets will become unattainable. In short, the time is now or never.

However, according to a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report, a “green alternative” is within our grasp. Not surprisingly, this requires a principal emphasis on the proliferation of wind and solar energy, but also that buildings and industries be made more energy efficient, and that electricity grids are remodelled and updated. The creation of millions of new jobs across the world is vital, particularly in those nations where very many have been rendered unemployed, as a result of the lockdowns imposed to hold the COVID-19 crisis in check.

The report concludes that rather than injecting finance into the prevailing high-carbon economy, more jobs can be created by investing in such activities as retrofitting buildings, fabricating wind farms, installing solar panels, inaugurating new power networks, implementing greater numbers of electric vehicles, improving the energy efficiencies of industry, long distance transportation, and appliances in general, along with more end-use renewables, biofuels production, and creating environmentally sound urban infrastructure. It is thought that such a “sustainable recovery plan” could generate an annual 9 million new jobs.

While the European Union, for example, appears poised to initiate a swathe of green as part of its recovery, globally, little money has so far been directed toward low-carbon industries, with the majority of the pledged funding aimed toward their high-carbon counterparts. For example, the aviation industry is targeted for a $33 billion bailout. As the Executive Director of the IEA, Fatih Birol, has commented, governments “had an excuse” to support these industries, as a first reaction to dealing with the suddenness and scale of the COVID-19 crisis, since “the first recovery plans were more aimed at creating firewalls round the economy.” However, some governments are still investing in high-carbon projects, such as coal-fired power stations.

There is an additional danger, namely that the currently available cheap and plentiful oil might act to derail the essential transformation to renewable energy. Especially at this critical time, to allow this to happen would be very short sighted, to say the least, and it is the longer game we must prepare for. As has been stressed elsewhere, the oversupply of oil is temporary, and will finally be drained away into the enlarging backdrop of declining conventional fields.

Investment in the countryside has also been proposed as a potentially significant source of new jobs. Sir Mark Rylance, the actor and former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, in London, has said that members of the theatrical profession are not happy “just sitting on their butts”, furloughed or unemployed due to COVID-19, and would prefer to be occupied in hands-on environmental activities. He has declared that, due to his own freelance status, he is prepared to devote one month per year for the next decade, to carry out building and digging work in the service of countryside and environmental initiatives, which he very much believes in. Sir Mark is also said to have proposed that the UK government invest £315 million in a range of countryside and environmental projects which could create (paid) jobs and improve the nation’s health.

A considerable opposing force to making such vital changes is the incentivisation of global capitalism, which, as a result of its massive resource consumption, is now reckoned to be eroding the safe, operating space of human civilization, leading to breaches of key planetary boundaries, such as land-use change, biosphere integrity and climate change.There are also indications that it may be more difficult than is generally thought to transform to a low-carbon society, and until renewables have been established on a sufficient scale to achieve net energy payback,  a large-scale expansion of low carbon energy capacity will rely upon subsidies from the fossil fuels, which are, in any case, becoming increasing scarce.

Most probably, a redesign of our system of industrialised civilization, to use less energy overall, primarily involving relocalisation strategies, is the critical approach to addressing these and many other issues that confront us, and it would be perilous to overlook this.

I dedicate this article to the late Bruce Arthur (“Woody”) Wood, author of the “Values Trilogy” set of essays, and a stalwart in the communities and co-operatives movement, with which he was involved for over forty years.


Teaser photo credit: Obama_Namaste_Solar_Electric_solar_panels_Denver_credit-white-house_public-domain

Chris Rhodes

Chris graduated from Sussex University obtaining both his B.Sc and D.Phil there and then worked for 2 years at Leicester University as a post-doctoral fellow with Professor M.C.R.Symons FRS. He was appointed to a "new-blood" lectureship in Chemistry at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London University and then moved to LJMU as Research Professor in Chemistry in 1994. In 2003 Chris was awarded a Higher Doctorate (D.Sc) by the University of Sussex. In August 2003 he established the consultancy firm, Fresh-lands Environmental Actions, which deals with various energy and environment issues, of which he is Director. Some of its current projects concern land remediation; heavy metal and radioactive waste management; alternative fuels and energy sources based on biomass and algae; and hydrothermal conversion of biomass and algae to biochar, fuels and feedstocks. Chris' publications run to over 200 articles and 5 books. He writes a monthly column for on "Future Energies". He has given invited lectures at many international conferences and university departments around the world, radio and televised interviews and more recently at popular science venues e.g. Cafe Scientifique. His first novel “University Shambles”, a black comedy based on the disintegration of the U.K. university system, was nominated for a Brit Writers Award. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London. He was recently elected Chair of Transition Town Reading (U.K.).

Tags: climate change responses, coronavirus strategies, greenhouse gas emissions