May 13 2020
Why COVID-19 Does Not Solve the Climate Crisis
Going beyond the headlines to ask ourselves, “What next?”
Recent comments from the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) generated a number of positive headlines featuring the assertion that the COVID-19 pandemic will drive the biggest drop in CO₂ emissions since WWII. On the surface, this feels highly positive.
So, have we won the battle against climate change?
All headlines need context, and all news coverage requires critical thinking. A deeper dive reveals that drop may be short lived and that similar past economic recoveries have actually resulted in even higher emissions growth than before these historical crises.
Our Sustainable Performance Group used data from some of the leading organizations on climate change to run a series of scenarios that show that the climate crisis is far from solved.
Biggest Emissions Drop Since WWII – In Context
The most recent global projections of energy demand by sector as well as projected CO₂ emissions can be found in the Global Energy Review 2020 from the International Energy Agency (published at the end of April 2020). This report tracked the energy usage by country over the past three months and used that data to predict the possible path for energy use for the rest of the year.
According to the report, global energy demand declined by 3.8% in the first quarter of 2020, with some countries seeing demand depressed by 20% or more in full lockdown. Upticks in residential demand were far outweighed by reductions in commercial and industrial operations. Fossil fuel demand was hit the hardest in the first quarter of 2020 compared to 2019 (coal demand dropped 8%, oil nearly 5%, and gas dropped 2%), while renewable energy demand grew at a modest 1.5%.
The report projects that global energy demand could fall by 6% by year end and reduce CO₂ emissions by 8%, bringing us back to the emissions levels of 10 years ago.
If these projections are accurate, such a reduction would be six times larger than the previous record reduction caused by the global financial crisis in 2008, and twice as large as all previous emissions reductions since World War II.
A very positive outlook indeed.
Figure 1 – IEA Global Energy Review 2020 – pg. 17.
This all sounds positive, but again, requires context. The WMO notes that past economic recoveries have been associated with higher emissions growth than before the crises.
If we take a closer look at each dip in Figure 1, we see that after most reductions, the positive rate of change in emissions is greater than it was before the reduction, as indicated by a steeper sloped curve. Using everyday examples, this means that smokestacks will start pumping, factories will reopen, and people will start driving their cars on a regular basis again.
While it is uncertain what normal life will look like post-COVID, our pollution habits will likely return. If history were to repeat itself, we would be back to the emission levels of 2019 before we know it.
But what if history did not repeat itself and we did not return to “normal”? What if COVID-19 acts as the nudge we need to start taking more drastic climate action? How far does this get us toward our climate targets?
Pandemic Emissions Drop Compared to Paris Climate Agreement Targets
With Entuitive’s offices spanning three countries, our analysis will compare Canada, the UK, and the USA’s climate targets under the Paris Climate Agreement and how each are affected by the pandemic. Canada and the UK have set Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) targets for 2030, while the USA had set an NDC target for 2025.
Despite this, according to the United Nations Emissions Gap Report 2019, Canada and the USA fell into the category of projected emissions being 15% or more above their NDC targets, in line with Brazil and South Korea. The UK, on the other hand, was still included in the EU28 group in the report, for which the group fell into the category of projected emissions being 15% or less below their NDC targets. However, a closer look at the UK’s projections alone suggests the country will not achieve that status on its own.
To understand the emissions reductions of COVID-19 in context, we must compare to a baseline of current emissions and projected reductions prior to the pandemic. Our baseline is taken from the latest emissions projections calculated by the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), which is an independent organization comparing country-by-country emissions targets to their reduction plans and running independent projections.
The CAT provides a maximum and minimum emissions projection, and both Canada and the US have also provided a maximum and minimum emissions target in their NDCs. We looked at each country’s best-case scenario, comparing the CAT’s minimum projections for each country with that country’s maximum emissions target, in order to find a fair baseline.
In this pre-pandemic baseline, Canada was projected to miss its target by 13%; the UK was projected to miss its target by 9%; and the USA was projected to miss its 2025 target by 11%, and will still not reach that target by 2030.
Figure 2 – Baseline projections sourced from ‘Climate Action Tracker, Country Assessments September 2019‘
Copyright © 2019 by Climate Analytics and NewClimate Institute.
Our team also examined emissions projections post-pandemic. First, we applied the 8% drop in emissions in 2020 when compared to 2019 numbers, assuming that the global projected emissions drop can be applied uniformly to each country. We then assumed that rather than have emissions rise back up, like the WMO suggests, the same trend in emissions projections from the CAT will continue for every year after 2020. This is a generous assumption but the results are concerning nonetheless. Canada still misses its targets by 6%; the UK still misses its targets by 3%; and the US still misses its 2025 target by 4% and will also miss it in 2030.
It is evident that the reduction in emissions due to the COVID-19 pandemic does not get us to our targets and we still have a long way to go.
Climate Change Post-Pandemic
We anticipate varied responses to the climate change problem once we return to “normal”, but two in particular stand out:
1. Emissions reductions are on track and further reductions are not a priority (ignoring the role a global lockdown played).
2. If a global pandemic cannot help us meet the Paris Climate Agreement, beating climate change is an insurmountable task.
We will most likely have to contend with these two reactions. However, as city-builders we believe we have an important role to play in educating our industry and leading by example with immediate action to not only reduce the carbon footprint of our firm but also reduce the carbon footprint of our designs. We must be willing to discuss these issues, as well as the most current data, to show that we can indeed effect positive change through a smart, sustainable built environment.
The greatest results will be realized through early action in our designs, including:
- Considering Lifecycle Assessment as early as possible to develop a baseline design and reduce the embodied carbon of the project.
- Evaluating the Carbon Smart Materials Palette early in the design to identify materials that can decrease a building’s footprint.
- Engaging with Structural, Building Envelope, and Energy Performance Modelling Consultants early on to create a holistic approach to design.
- Engaging a contractor and/or materials expert early, to coordinate and optimize the supply of the products required for a sustainable building, and to ensure those products can be sourced in the quantities required.
It is going to require the collective effort and determination of the entire industry to push the needle in the right direction. The world is taking a breath of fresh air as we reduce our footprint during this difficult time. Let us keep this momentum going into 2021 and beyond.
To see how your next design can reduce its carbon footprint, contact Emily King and the Sustainable Performance Group at Entuitive.
Written by Nick Zeeb