How Do We Return to Normal Without Raising Carbon Emissions?

Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images – Wild goats invade the streets of a Welsh town.

For a brief window in 2020 the world economy slowed. Roads and sidewalks emptied as citizens retreated indoors to protect their health and slow viral spread. Dwindling tourism and closed borders forced the carbon-intensive airline industry to ground planes and schedule half-empty flights, creating extreme financial distress across the global aviation sector. The domestic collapse in fossil fuel usage sent crude oil futures into negative territories (oil benchmark West Texas Intermediate reached negative $37.63/barrel on April 20th), and US unemployment numbers revealed an economic and social catastrophe matching the Great Depression. 

In short, this was a terrible moment in contemporary history. Although environmentalists rally against domestic flying, a burnout-prone work culture, and trillions of dollars in global fossil fuel subsidies, the COVID-19 Pandemic was a horrific catalyst to initiate a drop in international CO2 emissions. Addressing the climate crisis requires careful policy reform, universal jobs programs, and projects for social restoration. By contrast, the frantic postures and incomplete programs governments adopted to avoid economic collapse revealed how unprepared we are for catastrophe. In the US, the pandemic made economic inequality worse, and–if not for direct checks and temporary expansions of the welfare state–would have left grocery clerks and Uber drivers little more than the platitude of being called “essential workers.” 

For all this negativity, there were hints of good news. As international travel slowed and cities grew quieter, another kind of movement emerged. Dolphins swam to the shores of the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul, Turkey, and pink flamingos overtook lagoons on Albania’s west coastline. In only a few weeks, starved and confined wildlife populations filled the space left empty by gas engines and ambient din. The invisible became visible, like when a city experiences a brownout and the stars reemerge. Animals that had persisted on the outskirts of humanity finally reclaimed their space, presenting an ecological alternative to nature-starved cities. But this paradigm was short-lived. As we grew adept at living with the virus, recreating our pre-pandemic lifestyles, we forced wildlife back to the margins. 

This brief slow-down–the urban silence, the grounded flights–is quite relevant to how we understand CO2 emissions targets. The Coronavirus Pandemic, which is far from over, initiated a historic 6.4% annual drop in carbon emissions. This number is almost the exact yearly contraction in carbon consumption we need to meet the Paris Climate Accord’s 1.5 degree celsius benchmark (assuming this goal is still remotely possible). The only comparable dip was during the 2008 financial crisis, and this repetition teaches us an important, if harrowing, lesson. In the developed world, there is no political crisis that politicians dread more than an economic recession. This presents a fundamental problem; at this stage, let’s call it a paradox. How do we grow the economy without raising carbon emissions? GDP growth has never been decoupled from material wastage, colonialism, worker exploitation, and environmental pollution. Can the impulse to grow coexist with hard ecological restraints? The two ideals–economic prosperity and a healthy climate–are beginning to feel like separate utopias.  

Fortunately, a vanguard of ethicists and economists are working to create alternative models for growth. Kate Raworth, an English economist based at the University of Oxford and Cambridge, proposes a system called “doughnut economics,” in which we selectively grow and diminish different sectors of the economy. Being “on the doughnut” means that our economy is meeting our basic needs (foods, housing, social equity) while avoiding the “overshoot” of ecological devastation. Under Raworth’s plan, productive segments such as the fossil fuel industry would undergo forced de-growth, while industries like childcare that are “undershooting” their capacity would receive deeper investments (this animated video helps explain Raworth’s visual model). 

An economy based on selective growth also requires disrupting the GDP paradigm, in which growth exists for growth’s sake. Economic orthodoxy appears to be shifting, as evidenced by a recent Harvard Business School Op Ed that criticized GDP as a crude measure of “the size of a nation’s economy,” rather than a reflection of a nation’s welfare. Regardless, these ideas have yet to leave universities and think-tanks. There is no bill in Congress that proposes selective de-growth, as the concept remains politically unpalatable. Even the progressive Green New Deal argues that a carbon-neutral economy can grow. In fact, coordinated government investments in clean energy and housing should accelerate economic growth, if the original New Deal is any indication. We must hope that the drive toward material prosperity–even when based upon clean infrastructure–does not wipe out our remaining carbon budget. Our only alternative is imagining a future where growth is no longer lionized. This means reinventing the ways we shop and creating new cultural desires and aspirations beyond high-consumerism. Unfortunately, the broader United States is not yet ready for this post-growth economy. As travel and lockdown restrictions ease, a desire to “return to normal” is motivating consumers’ travel and purchasing habits. Our old ways are returning, and it is unlikely that we will make these necessary changes on our own. 

In the public sector, the Biden Administration is presenting a vision of accelerated decarbonization, job growth, and climate justice. At a virtual Earth Day summit attended by dozens of world leaders, Biden pledged to cut US carbon emissions in half by 2030 (2005 is the chosen baseline), reaching net neutrality by 2050. This goal is partially enabled by his “American Jobs Plan,” a $2 trillion infrastructure package that would “fix highways, rebuild bridges, [and] upgrade transit systems,” in addition to retrofitting outdated homes to lower their carbon impacts and fortifying the care-worker economy. It has been decades since massive public sector investments revitalized the US economy; in this context, the “American Jobs Plan” is progressive and should limit the ecological destruction of our “return to normal” mindset. Still, absent filibuster reform, the infrastructure plan will have to pass through budget reconciliation, a process that requires absolute party unity and limits the scope of legislation

Parliamentary politics aside, the Biden Administration’s plans are crucial because they acknowledge the limited scope of citizens’ consumption habits. We might ask why, in a year when most people quit travelling and restricted their shopping, our carbon emissions only dipped by 6.4%. The answer lies in the deep integration of fossil fuels into the machinery of our global economy. Many emissions stem from industrial practices–such as shipping, energy production, and agriculture–that will not be healed by consumer activism alone. Individual choices have an impact on these industries, but cannot meet the existential requirements of our rushed ecological timeline. As Carnegie scientist Anna Michalak writes in National Geographic

“the COVID-19 Pandemic is the largest event many of us have ever experienced… It’s hard to reconcile that with just a small difference in emissions; it seems almost dismissive. But what’s important to remember is that this shows how the use of carbon as a fuel source is so deeply embedded in every aspect of how humanity runs itself, so the emissions keep happening.” 

We will never reach carbon neutrality by turning off our light bulbs and recycling our plastic bottles. True reform, or the style of change that will enable our post-pandemic lives to flourish, requires addressing how our energy is produced and finding the root causes of emissions. Whatever our individual choices, our ecological successes and failures, the network of possibilities that undergirds contemporary life must be free of fossil energy. 

As lockdown restrictions ease, I would like to note one other point. A decarbonized economy does not mean the existential sadness and social deprivation we experienced during the pandemic. Perhaps the things that we value most–human touch, laughter, meaningful connections, time outdoors, and vibrant communities–are already low-carbon endeavors. The COVID-19 Pandemic lowered our net emissions by robbing us of our deepest commitments: those we hold to each other. A low-carbon society, on the contrary, can be a place where we work less, share greater bonds, and greet loneliness with community. Like wildlife returning to spaces long uninhabitable, a forgotten sense of joy and serendipity can take hold. 

That, in our anxious world, is something to look forward to. 

Written By: Maxwell Rowe-Sutton