Stay-at-home orders and lockdowns resulted in sharp drops in CO2 emissions that likely won’t continue when the Covid pandemic wanes. But recovery does offer opportunities to remake our economy in climate-friendly ways.
By Kelly Thomas
Texas Climate News
A primarily pandemic-driven drop in carbon dioxide emissions, which reached a low point in April, is unlikely to be sustained and will have limited long-term consequences, say climate experts across Texas.
However, pandemic recovery efforts could be a turning point in the future of climate-disrupting CO2 emissions, helping determine whether they continue to climb or start to drop. The climate experts interviewed by Texas Climate News for this story suggest a few main carbon-cutting solutions, some of which Texas could be crucial in contributing to.
Most countries began enforcing stay-at-home orders and lockdown measures in March, sequestering people in their homes and cutting major sources of emissions like ground transportation, air travel and industrial activity.
Global CO2 emissions during the pandemic reached their lowest point – a decrease of 17 percent compared to last year’s levels – on April 7, according to a recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change.
In an update, the study’s authors reported that emissions are already sharply surging upward as economic re-openings occur; as of June 11, emissions were only at an estimated 4.7 percent decrease compared to 2019.
Though difficult to quantify due to the lack of real-time data on emissions, Texas – the nation’s top emitter of CO2 – could have played a significant role in the recent drop.
“There was reduction in demand associated with not only petroleum products but also with regard to plastics,” Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer and professor at Rice University, told Texas Climate News.
This decrease in demand caused some production plants in the state to be taken offline for maintenance, resulting in lower emissions.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the amount of CO2 in the air reached a record high in May – around 417 parts per million.
The short-lived emissions drop because of the economic slowdown prompted by the pandemic will have little effect on these atmospheric levels of CO2, climate scientists say.
Katherine Hayhoe, an award-winning climate scientist and professor at Texas Tech University, told Texas Climate News:
“We’ve been putting a brick of carbon on this pile, which is the atmosphere, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Over time, that brick has gone from small to enormous. And for one month, we’ve put a brick – an enormous brick that is 17 percent smaller – on the pile. And then, the next month, (the brick) is going to be back to the regular size. So, that’s not going to make a difference in the size of the pile.”
She also explained that the methods used to achieve these temporary reductions – collectively amounting to an abrupt and catastrophic economic slowdown – were “not sustainable long-term.”
Reactions vs. decisions
Blackburn shared a similar viewpoint:
“It’s important to keep in mind these were not reductions that were done because of concern about climate…these were reactions. I think that’s very different from a conscious decision to change behavior to address climate change, and that’s not what this was.”
However, he does believe the pandemic will establish some behavioral changes that may influence long-term emissions.
One example he cited was the shift toward meeting remotely over online services such as Zoom and working from home – patterns of behavior that could cut down on transportation emissions, especially in a state as sprawling and automobile-reliant as Texas.
Because the pandemic forced these changes on society for at least two months, Blackburn said, “I think some of these patterns will stick.”
Daniel Cohan, an atmospheric scientist and professor at Rice University, described another carbon-cutting factor that may last past the pandemic, although it began beforehand.
“Coal got slammed in the first few months [of this year]. Coal use [to produce electricity] is down by about one third compared to last year … and so that,s been a big part of why U.S. emissions will be down so sharply this year. The pandemic exacerbated some of that, but it wasn’t the full cause.”
He said this past winter’s warm temperatures drove down demand for natural gas to heat homes and in turn, electricity usage. Resulting lower prices helped natural gas out compete coal as an electricity source. Additionally, the ability of wind and solar to run untied to demand, unlike coal and gas, has helped push those two renewable power sources to the forefront.
Cohan believes continuing to phase out coal, particularly in Texas, is “the fastest thing that will cut our carbon footprint.”
“Coal is already down to about 20 percent of our power supply. We’ve got more than enough opportunities to build wind and solar in the state that there’s no reason that Texas needs to be getting any of its electricity from coal,” he said.
Hayhoe also emphasized Texas’ potential as a renewable energy supplier, since the state already leads the country in producing wind energy.
“I’ve calculated that if we wanted to supply the entire United States with electricity from Texas, we would just need about a 120-by-120 square mile area in West Texas,” she said
Pandemic recovery presents an opportunity for governments to consider implementing sustainable carbon-cutting efforts.
“I think we’re really at a sort of tipping point,” Cohan said. “Were coming to a fork in the road in terms of how we manage this recovery.”
He said that two paths diverge in recovery efforts: subsidizing fossil-fuel industries hit by low oil prices, or spending “green” stimulus money to shape the infrastructure needed for a green economy.
“If we decide to make those investments and create the jobs that are needed for a green economy, then there’s an opportunity to come out of this crisis in a way that would reduce emissions even further,” he said.
Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist and professor at Texas A&M University, told TCN, “If governments use the stimulus correctly or appropriately, it could lead to long-term reductions in emissions.”
In addition to suggesting a shift to green energy sources, the experts TCN talked to for this story shared several main ways to sustainably cut carbon emissions, especially in Texas.
One is to cut transportation emissions, relevant in Texas due to its size and the spread-out nature of its urban centers.
Texas has clear potential for expansion in the electric vehicle market. In 2019, the state held only about a 2 percent market share of the nation’s electric vehicle sales.
Cohan stressed the importance of shifting to these cleaner vehicles, keeping in mind how the pandemic-related change in driving patterns made such a difference in a short amount of time.
As the recent study in Nature Climate Change noted, transportation emissions dropped the most of any sector from January through April.
“I think the drop in our vehicle emissions shows us what we can achieve with more efficient or electric cars. But also, this is a drop that could very easily be reversed,” Cohan said.
The experts who were interviewed also recommend that Texas increase its energy efficiency “The United States could cut its carbon emissions in half just through efficiency,” Hayhoe said.
Texas has the greatest potential for energy saving through increased efficiency of any state, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Another method to reduce CO2 levels is to remove carbon from the atmosphere through carbon sequestration, capture and storage.
“I personally think nature-based solutions are a huge opportunity in Texas that is largely unexplored and undeveloped,” Blackburn said. “I think there’s, within this, scalable potential, and it’s relatively inexpensive.”
His proposed nature-based solutions range from tree planting to grassland restoration and farming. The key mechanism in these solutions is photosynthesis, through which plants draw carbon from the atmosphere and restore it back into the soil.
Blackburn leads a nonprofit — Texas Coastal Exchange — that preserves Texas’ coastal ecosystems as a tool for carbon storage. The organization awards grants to landowners in exchange for the ecosystem services, or environmental benefits, their land provides.
Regenerative farming, according to Hayhoe, simultaneously restores soil, improves crop production and takes carbon out of the atmosphere. “That enables us to not only stop putting carbon into the atmosphere but actually take a few bricks off the pile,” she said.
Blackburn believes that money will ultimately be the factor that motivates Texas to implement any of these proposed methods to sustainably reduce emissions.
“When Texas realizes that this is what’s necessary, that it’s a path to making money in the future, I think we will see massive change,” he said. “Money is kind of a great leveler.”
He said oil companies will have to adapt their practices to continue business in the future – a monetary move.
A necessary step toward achieving a greener state is to realize the limited sustainability of fossil fuels, said Dessler.
“We have ridden the fossil-fuel horse for 150 years, give or take, and it’s been extremely profitable, so I think it’s extremely difficult to tell people that the end is here, but I think the end is here,” he said.
The “end” Dessler refers to is what he described as an inevitable end to the viability of fossil fuels as an energy source.
“Fossil fuels are not the fuel of the future,” he said. “It’s really going to wreck the state’s economy if we’re not smart about this and start trying to diversify away from fossil fuels.”
Though the pandemic has not prompted a definitively sustained drop in emissions, it presents an opportunity to consider implementing carbon-cutting initiatives with the consequences of climate change in mind.
Whether or not the pandemic will actually spark any green recovery efforts in the United States, Hayhoe believes the drop demonstrates humanity’s potential to take action in dire circumstances.
“What this shows us is that when disaster is staring us in the face and we have to act, we can act and we can achieve incredible things,” she said.
Kelly Thomas is an independent journalist and a Houstonian. She is a student at Northeastern University, where she studies journalism and environmental studies.