The Virus Slightly Cools the Planet. Can It Do More?

The Virus Slightly Cools the Planet. Can It Do More?

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Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop

Some say the pandemic has become an ally in the fight against climate catastrophe. Others say this is short-term thinking: The public may abandon concerns over global warming as it tries to climb out of the economic hole left by the COVID-19 lockdowns.

The government-mandated social distancing and its freezing of industrial activity has cut greenhouse gas emissions, certainly for the time being. The International Energy Agency predicts global carbon emissions will have fallen about 8% this year from 2019’s level. That would be the biggest annual decline ever.

One reason is people are not driving and flying. We can’t know the extent to which a reopening will restore the old normal, but the ease of video conferencing and remote working — plus a continued need to socially distance — suggest not quite. Many workers seem to like spending time at home, while employers can see advantages in spending less on office space.

Governments are trying to revive their economies by investing in projects to “decarbonize.” These are initiatives to slow the greenhouse gas emissions threatening life on the planet as we’ve known it. Helping the cause are low interest rates, which make borrowing for such projects easier.

There are lots of jobs in green energy — 11 million globally. Collapsing demand has shredded employment in oil and gas. The only members of the fossil fuel industry doing well are the bankruptcy lawyers.

That the virus may be fueling a lasting move away from carbon is not wishful thinking. The oil giant BP thinks the pandemic will cut long-term demand for fossil fuels. That’s why BP has reduced the estimated value of its oil and gas assets by almost $18 billion. BP’s reasoning goes beyond the coronavirus-caused recession. It points to the world’s ongoing retreat from carbon-based energy before the virus darkened the outlook further. It notes government stimulus packages are designed to speed the move from fossil fuels.

France threatened Air France with a loss of taxpayer subsidies if it doesn’t cut domestic routes served by high-speed train. France’s $9 billion recovery plan for the auto industry includes lowering the prices of electric cars. Canada requires companies taking government bailout money to disclose the risk climate change poses to their bottom lines. If such reporting becomes mandatory, it could intensify the move toward greener enterprises.

The pre-COVID drops in the cost of solar and wind power made them a replacement for fossil fuel energy. Prices for oil and natural gas also have fallen. But wouldn’t the lower prices for oil and gas make this a good time to do away with their government subsidies? The environmentally backward Trump administration would do no such thing — it’s been engineering taxpayer bailouts for fossil fuel companies.

President Donald Trump doesn’t matter so much anymore. In this country, states, cities and Wall Street know the future is green tech. The economic fallout from the pandemic has, if anything, lit the way.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.

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