Two side effects of the current pandemic are that air pollution has decreased dramatically in some cities and greenhouse gas emissions have temporarily dropped. These trends raise the interesting question as to whether it would be possible to achieve the same results, or better, without shutting down huge swaths of the economy and keeping people cooped up at home.
To those of us who study climate change solutions, the answer is clearly a resounding “yes”. The trick is to shift the narrative on climate action. Instead of talking about climate change as an issue we must sacrifice to address — implying that citizens must all limit their lifestyles — we can talk about the solutions to climate change, which amount to a massive and coordinated public investment in new infrastructure.
Personal behaviour change alone cannot solve the problem. Even with the current lockdowns, total emissions in 2020 are projected to drop by only 5%. This decrease is nowhere near the complete elimination of emissions the world must achieve by 2050. And the behaviour changes in question are only being achieved because the coronavirus pandemic is so acutely scary and because people know the sacrifice is temporary.
We need government action to kickstart significant change to the physical equipment that governs our lives. By swapping out every piece of technology that emits greenhouse gases with one that doesn’t (plus some work on agriculture and deforestation) the world can achieve net-zero emissions while still consuming energy to drive the economy.
Governments can achieve that 100% clean economy through mandates, incentives, financing, carbon prices, government procurement, public deployment, and partnerships with companies and other governments.
Given the current recession, the obvious approach for the next half-year or more is to use a combination of policies and direct initiatives to start massively deploying all technologies that are ready to go (such as electric vehicles and air source heat pumps). First, so their costs continue to come down and they can become affordable worldwide, and secondly to directly stimulate economies into long-term recovery and revitalisation. We are talking about manufacturing, construction and building retrofit jobs.
Beyond the next half-year, we will need publicly funded and coordinated research and development, demonstration projects, and more to bring new (or improved) clean energy technologies to the point that they can also be scaled up rapidly. Those investments will further stimulate the economy and lead to the growth of whole new industries.
It is time for political leaders to get on the same page around a commitment to reaching a 100% clean economy worldwide by 2050. We can have the clean air we are seeing today — and we cannot only reduce but eliminate greenhouse gas emissions — without needing a global recession. In fact, by using government leadership to scale up all the equipment needed for a 100% clean economy, the clean energy manufacturing boom is one of the best prospects for getting us out of the recession we’ve just entered.
Solomon Goldstein-Rose was elected to the Massachusetts legislature on a climate change-focused platform at age 22. He previously interned in the Obama White House and in Congress, and ran a statewide carbon pricing campaign. For more information go to SolomonGR.com
The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy
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