October 1st, 2020

Pandemic helps teach us about climate change

By Medicine Hat News Opinion on May 21, 2020.


New reports state global carbon dioxide emissions fell by about 17 per cent by early April, during an unprecedented slowdown as the industrial world battles COVID-19.
That’s either encouraging or terrifying depending on which side of the climate debate you sit.
The reality is neither and both, but gives key — and, yes, unprecedented — insight into the scope of the problem faced by governments, scientists and even regular citizens to reduce carbon output.
Many climate activists and even moderate citizens will see the drop as a signal that greenhouse gas reduction is actually possible. If we can pull in the same direction to beat a coronavirus, why not for the climate?
Others wonder why “only” a one-fifth drop – considering the scope of the economic contraction – and whether such a gain is worth the pain.
Certainly, they might say, we can’t keep this up.
Really, all it’s proved is that a complete lockdown on daily life is the wrong, or at least an inefficient, way to tackle climate change.
While more people are staying home, large industrial processes are mostly continuing, electricity is still being produced, and on and on.
It seems like good news that your individual contribution to climate change isn’t as big as first thought.
The bad news is that systems that we rely on – for power, for jobs, for waste disposal, even housing – are larger factors and much harder to change quickly.
Climate change is accepted by a clear majority of Canadians, plus a near total percentage of scientific community, but many have been happy to think that minor, personal actions would be enough to reverse it.
Better lightbulbs, or biking to the store once in a while, clearly are not going to cut it.
A common stab at the green movement is that it would have us starving in caves to meet unattainable goals.
That’s a mischaracterization, but the recent data does put into sharp focus the monumental task ahead if goals to reduce emissions or become carbon neutral are to be achieved.
For perspective, Alberta’s entire greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 totalled 272 million tonnes.
The average vehicle produced about six tonnes of it. Natural gas for home heating (another six tonnes per home annually) are really the only items subject to an individual’s control.
With three million Alberta households, the cumulative total is about 15 per cent of total emissions.
It’s hard to think you could cut a third of that quickly only to get a measly five per cent.
But all is not lost – three times that reduction will, in reality, take place over the next decade as coal-fired power plants are converted to burn natural gas.
If we want to make progress on CO2 emissions, we should stop kidding ourselves that it won’t put a huge strain on the economy.
If we don’t want to, we should stop relying on the idea that it’s impossible.

Collin Gallant is a reporter for the Medicine Hat News. Email him at cgallant@medicinehatnews.com.

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