The Wrong Way to be Carbon Negative

Cataclysmic economic changes could point towards a hopeful outlook in combating climate change.

By Greg Pustorino

The coronavirus pandemic continues to keep communities on lockdown and is still plaguing healthcare systems across the globe. However, dips in infection rates and increased discharge rates from hospitals have the United States and other countries starting to think about restarting the economy and reducing social distancing protocols. 

As of October 2020, the coronavirus has infected over 35 million people and is responsible for almost 1 million deaths. This virus has shocked the global community and devastated countries far and wide. During this time of incredible hardship, among pictures of vacant city streets and abandoned monuments, a growing body of data is accumulating on how reduced human economic actions have had rejuvenating effects on the environment. 

A 25% decrease in COemissions and a drop of coal burning by 40% was reported in China within the first few weeks of the shutdown. These reductions corresponded with an 11% increase in good air quality days. Meanwhile, New York has experienced a 50% reduction in air pollution compared to 2019 due to its stay at home orders. Similar trends were observed in other countries as well. Canals in Venice are the cleanest they have been in 60 years and started to run clear due to the decreased boat traffic. And the air quality of France was greatly improved due to the shut down. 

These “positive” benefits of the coronavirus epidemic are really an effect caused by the reduced economic output. This reduction in emissions and air pollution following an economic downturn or recession is nothing new, according to our recent history. 

The 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano is an example that had a similar effect on both the economy and the environment, albeit to a much smaller extent. The 2010 eruption spued nearly 150,000 tons of CO2 each day for 6 days. The ensuing dust cloud reached most of Northern Europe and led to thousands of flights being canceled globally. This reduction in air travel alone prevented almost 3 million tonnes of CO2 from being emitted. Around 95,000 flights were canceled resulting in an economic loss of 1.7 billion dollars to the airline industry. These flight restrictions affected the export-import balance in Europe, leading to shortages in fresh foods and electronics. The pharmaceutical industry was hit as well due to the easy spoilage of some of their sensitive drugs, which depleted local stocks and led to minor shortages.  

Another example is the Great Recession of 2008. A recent UC Irvine study showed that the United States CO2 emissions fell 10% between 2007 and 2009 which perfectly overlapped with the historic housing market crash. The first explanation of this drop was the switch to natural gas that the United States underwent at the same time. However, further analysis showed that 75% of the reduced emission was caused by the 4.3% reduction of real gross domestic product between 2007 and 2009. 

The 1991 fall of the Soviet Union was one of the biggest economic disruptions in history. The collapse of the Eastern Bloc greatly reduced the industrial output of the Central European region. Together the drop in economic output in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc led to a 7.6 billion ton reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1992 to 2011.

A main factor of this momentous greenhouse gas reduction was the collapse of the livestock industry within the Soviet Union. At the time of the fall, high product prices and lowered purchasing power greatly decreased the consumption of animal products like beef. This led to one of the most drastic changes in land use in history, as Russian farmers abandoned enormous regions of farmland and moved to the cities.    

In total, nearly 176,000 square miles of land was abandoned in Russia and Kazakhstan. Over the years, plants began to grow again in these areas and started to sequester carbon from the air. This made the abandoned farmland the largest human made carbon sink ever created, albeit not on purpose. This area locks away about 43 million tons of carbon every year since it was abandoned in 1991. Therefore, the land sequesters the carbon equivalent to 10% of Russia’s current greenhouse emissions. 

From the coronavirus to the fall of the Soviet Union, none of these examples represent how we, as a global community, want to combat ever rising concerns over climate change. They are neither sustainable nor favorable due to the economic damage they incur. After all of these events, the world eventually recovered and economic production outpaced its previous levels. The same is likely to happen when economies restart after the coronavirus crisis is over. 

However, there are some positive takeaways from these dramatic examples of environmental improvement. The first takeaway is how fast we can improve the environment. These sharp decreases in CO2 emissions all happened during very short periods of time and had real world impacts. Coronavirus was able to turn Venice’s canals clear in a matter of months. The impermanence of these effects is due to the impermanence of their inciting factors (thankfully the economy has always recovered). However, with policies like the European Green Deal, which seeks to have all EU member states to have zero emissions by 2050, we should be hopeful in realistically achieving the benefits of reduced emissions. With good fortune and environmental changes happening in real time and visible to all could also be a catalyzing agent to create more policy like the European Green Deal.

Lastly, transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, being responsible for 35% of emissions. With the push to work from home and the increase in video conferencing technology, working from home might be more practical for more people. Changing attitudes like this could be a powerful first step towards fighting climate change. □


Work Cited

  1. Image source
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  4. Iceland volcano causes fall in carbon emissions as eruption grounds aircraft. (2010, April 19). Retrieved April 22, 2020, from http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/apr/19/eyjafjallajokull-volcano-climate-carbon-emissions
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