Worldwide carbon emissions dropped for the first time during the pandemic. Can the trend continue?

  During COVID-19, every environmentalist’s ecological dreams came true. Carbon emissions dropped worldwide, while the smog over cities from New Delhi to Beijing dissipated almost overnight. But as the pandemic comes to a close, with hundreds of millions of people worldwide being vaccinated, economies have reopened and emissions have begun to rise once more. Many world leaders, including President Biden, have started cooperating to use the historic pause in industrial manufacturing to encourage countries worldwide to hasten their transition to clean energy sources.

The international energy agency announced that a 6% reduction in carbon emissions had been achieved worldwide due to the pandemic. The IEA executive director Dr. Fatih Birol said, “If governments don’t move quickly with the right energy policies, this could put at risk the world’s historic opportunity to make 2019 the definitive peak in global emissions.” As of now, the United States re-entered the 2015 Paris climate accords and has introduced legislation to expedite the integration of clean energy sources into the American power grid. The European Union also enacted a binding policy amongst its member states to make 20% of the EU’s power come from clean and renewable energy sources by the end of last year.

However, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the European Union and the United States combined accounted for 24% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide in 2014. Russia, India, and China, on the other hand, accounted for 42% of emissions. These three countries have often been classed as countries in the midst of their industrialization efforts, requiring cheap and abundant sources of energy to fuel their industries. But they have also made commitments to reduce or eliminate their carbon footprint. 

For example, President Xi Jinping of China said he aimed at making China a carbon-neutral emission country by the year 2060, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India has said that he sought to reduce emissions by 30-35%. Russia also unveiled plans which would make it a carbon-neutral country by the year 2100. With the significant greenhouse-gas-producing countries pledging to substantial cuts in emissions, it seems as though the trend can continue downwards.

But Western diplomats such as John Kerry have expressed concern at what they feel is a lack of urgency by these three countries. China and Russia’s plan would only begin to reduce emissions in 2030 after a decade of increasing carbon emissions, and India has rejected the idea of committing to carbon neutrality. Government officials from all three countries have cited economic concerns about a hastened transition to carbon neutrality and claim that their plans are the best that their countries can deliver at this time. This gradual transition to a carbon-neutral economy can partially be explained by the importance of industrial output for industrializing economies.

Almost 40% of China’s GDP comes from industrial output, 32% for Russia, and 26.5% for India. Compared to the 19% of GDP that industries represent in the U.S, making robust environmental commitments is a far more daunting task for China, Russia and India than it is for the United States. That is part of the reason why these countries’ plans for carbon emission reduction span over many decades. For example, China is making plans to diversify its economy by creating more service jobs, such as cashiers and flight attendants, with Russia and India having similar plans. The economic stability of the aforementioned countries relies on a transition to service jobs before they can become carbon neutral.

But economics aside, climate change is a problem that can yield potentially devastating consequences. Island nations like Nauru face potentially extinction-level events with ever-rising sea levels threatening to flood out the island nation. Children in New Dehli are being born in a city clouded by toxic fumes which can make them sick from a very young age. In China’s super cities, seeing a bright blue sky is a rare sight when millions upon millions of cars and factories release toxic fumes into the sky. Many experts say that by the year 2030, the damage from climate change will become irreversible. But with no immediate strong economic incentive to stop pollution, it seems unlikely that the world will reduce carbon pollution by 2030. Greenhouse gas emissions may fall eventually, but it will take many decades to reach an environmentally acceptable level.