One lesson to take away from the coronavirus pandemic has nothing to do with the virus itself. That lesson is that simply reducing carbon dioxide emissions is neither a practical nor politically salable approach to combating rising global temperatures.
On Tuesday, Amazon said its carbon footprint rose 15% last year, even as it launched initiatives to reduce its harm on the environment. The amount of carbon the company emitted for every dollar spent on its website fell 5% between 2018 and 2019, but that was more than made up for by increased sales, The Associated Press reported.
That was before the COVID-19 pandemic, which kept people in lockdown at home for three months and increased online shopping in general, and at Amazon in particular.
That, of course, is just one company, but the global picture is similarly gloomy.
“On April 7, global carbon dioxide emissions plummeted to levels not seen since 2006, according to a study released (May 19) that suggests the coronavirus pandemic might have led to the largest reduction in CO2 ever recorded,” according to Scientific American. “But few scientists are cheering the sudden change. To the contrary, researchers increasingly view the precipitous drop in emissions as a sign of how much work the world has to do to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”
Yet this amazing drop in carbon dioxide emissions — caused by countries locking down their economies to slow virus spread — wasn’t enough to give scientists hope. And the CO2 drop came with a terrible economic cost: the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
All of this should give pause to those who claim we can cut carbon emissions with little or no economic pain. It should also cause more thought by those who think we can painlessly transition to green jobs — based on technologies that are still experimental, expensive or merely assumed — while cutting CO2 enough to make a difference.
Reining in global warming will be costly. There is simply no getting around that. And if the only strategy is the one typically put forward by environmental activists — cut CO2 and also phase out nuclear power — the cost will be so high voters will never go for it. While the United States and European Union have both made progress in cutting their emissions, they haven’t made enough progress to make up for increases in the developing world, including the world’s two most populous nations, China and India.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, we know what the cost of really cutting CO2 emissions feels like, and it’s not sustainable.
Yet global warming remains a problem, increasing the frequency and severity of deadly wildfires and, by putting more energy into the atmosphere, creating more chaotic weather patterns. That is not good news for people like us in Alabama who have already been dealing with chaotic weather patterns for decades.
A greater reliance on nuclear power seems unavoidable, yet it raises questions of its own as long as the safety of plants like Browns Ferry near Athens remains in question. It’s not that nuclear power can’t be used safely and effectively: Europe has a good track record. But that will take stronger accountability than has been displayed by U.S. regulators in the past.
We also must expand our definition of “green technology.” Technologies that can take excess CO2 out of the atmosphere need just as much promotion and development as green technologies that substitute for CO2-emitting fuels. Belching out CO2 is less of a problem if it can be recaptured.
All options have to be on the table. If cutting CO2 alone, down to levels that will make a difference, was a hard sell before, it’s a harder sell now. It can’t be the only strategy the green lobby promotes.