Carbon Crash in the Corona-crisis

Sun, 03/29/2020 - 12:30pm

About this blog:

  • Sarah Miller

    I’m Sarah Miller, a semi-retired international energy and business journalist and editor, and now a Camden resident. Having spent a career learning about old energy, I’ve turned to new energy in recent years. In doing so, I’ve come to see how important fossil fuels and the way they work were to the structure of 19th and 20th Century economies and societies. I’ve also started to imagine what cleaner, more distributed energy forms could mean for the structure of 21st Century economies and societies. The climate crisis is frightening, but the energy and social transitions that accompany it can bring us a better world -- if communities like ours here on the Midcoast work in a bottom-up, “distributed” way to make it so. That’s what Tales from the Transition is all about.

    I am active in the community through the Camden Energy and Sustainability Committee, the Camden Philosophical Society, the board of Bay Chamber Concerts and Music School, and the climate activist group Climate Matters Maine. I am a former president of the Camden Conference. The views expressed in this blog, however, are strictly my own.

Thanks to the “corona-crisis,” global carbon emissions will fall this year from 2019 levels. That much is increasingly certain, and it is exactly what climate scientists prescribed. Exactly what they and activists such as Bill McKibben and Greta Thunberg have been telling us had to happen to give the world a chance of meeting the United Nations target of 2 degrees Celsius -- or preferably less -- of climate rise.

A big price is being paid in lives and livelihoods. Can we extract something positive from the epic disruption by using it to grab that chance and reposition our societies on a shorter path to a no-carbon future? Calls are growing worldwide to do so – to shift the world economy in a more climate-friendly direction before we turn it back on again.

Such pleas remain relatively muted here in the US, however. Across the country and here in Midcoast Maine we should be joining the chorus – singing and even shouting for positive change at the top of our lungs. Not only might this save the globe from a disastrous level of climate change, it might help get us individually through this “corona-crisis,” as I’m coming to call the combined health and social-economic upheaval through which we’re passing. After all, as Greta has been telling us for some time now, action is the best antidote to fear.    

We know carbon emissions will total less in 2020 than in 2019 because people around the world are using much less oil, natural gas and coal, which are far and away the biggest sources of carbon-dioxide pollution in our atmosphere. If you haven’t seen the satellite photos of cleaner skies encompassing the world’s cities, give yourself a treat.

Few now expect a return to our high-emitting old ways anytime soon. Forecasters are starting to suggest that average world oil demand over the course of 2020 will be down from last year by 3% or more. (Recent demand is around 100 million barrels per day, so in link, 1 million b/d equals 1%). That may not sound huge, but when you consider that the growth rate for oil use before the coronavirus struck was only in the 1%-2% range, you start to see the potential for keeping global consumption forever below its 2019, pre-virus peak.

A similar dip in natural gas use is already evident in plunging prices in the US and worldwide, even if demand stats aren’t available yet. The rock-bottom prices for natural gas will, in turn, assure that less coal – which emits more carbon than gas -- is used even in the unlikely event that there’s a quick bounce in the Chinese and Indian economies that now account for the great bulk of the world’s coal burning. And as fossil fuel use goes, so go carbon emissions.

Solar installations, wind mill construction and even electric vehicle (EV) sales are also being slowed, of course. When everything stops, everything stops. The renewables industries are loudly touting how bad it is, not least because, quite fairly , they want their share of the governmental largesse being shoveled out in the US and across the world in an attempt to keep businesses large and small from imploding financially while the economy is shut down and people are shut up in their homes. And quite unfairly, they were excluded in key ways from the $2.2 trillion economic rescue package just passed by Congress.

But these industries aren’t dying. They will come roaring back in a way that oil and gas companies will not. Especially if we support them with such moves as keeping municipal and home solar projects on track and encouraging wind expansion, including the offshore variety where Maine presents so many possibilities that have been unleashed now that we have a pro-renewables governor in office.

However, keeping  carbon emissions on a falling path will require more than returning to the ideas we were already pushing in our communities before the virus struck – however good and useful those ideas may be. It will require imaginative leaps to build in a positive way on some of the lessons we’re learning under duress. Lessons about driving less to both work and play, walking and bicycling more, buying more local food that doesn’t have to be flown to us from half way across the world in the belly of carbon-emitting airplanes.

Some of those hard-learned lessons will need to be adapted in important ways to make them better: When it’s over, don’t buy everything online, buy everything local. Not only do the local merchants who are our neighbors and friends need our support, but carbon emissions are reduced by every cargo ship that doesn’t haul things to us from across the globe, every plane that doesn’t fly to bring in out-of-season fruits and vegetables, every truck that doesn’t carry lettuce from irrigated fields in water-short California to Maine stores.     

People are already starting to get this point. Small Maine farmers report that orders for their healthy, delicious, low-carbon-footprint produce are coming in at as much as 10 times rates for this time of year. Prices for Maine lobster and shellfish have plummeted because people in China and other far-flung spots aren’t buying them while their own economies are at a standstill and because restaurants across the US Northeast that normally sell so much Maine seafood are mostly closed.

Let’s do what we can to support our local fishermen by buying more of their catch here at home. Signs offering fresh scallops have been spotted at local fish stores, and some fishermen are working to sell more of their catch directly to consumers. Walk over and buy some!