Climate study says global COVID-19 shutdowns will have 'negligible' impact on temperatures
A new study claims the coronavirus-related shutdowns that halted economies around the world yielded emissions reductions but will have "negligible" overall impact on global temperatures -- raising questions about the utility of sweeping environmental regulations with potentially massive economic tradeoffs.
The study, published last week in the journal Nature Climate Change, follows presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's vow to rejoin the ambitious Paris Climate Agreement. His running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, has also pledged support for the Green New Deal, which calls for a series of radical and costy transformations to the U.S. economy.
As the pandemic spread in the U.S., media outlets have suggested that the upside of halting economic activity was a lower burden on the environment. In May, The Washington Post claimed "global emissions plunged an unprecedented 17 percent during the coronavirus pandemic."
While last week's study acknowledged emissions reductions, it also concluded: "We estimate that the direct effect of the pandemic-driven response will be negligible, with a cooling of around 0.01 ± 0.005 °C by 2030 compared to a baseline scenario that follows current national policies." Part of that stemmed from the fact that the cooling effect of nitrogen oxide emissions reductions were partially offset by a reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions, which "weakens the aerosol cooling effect, causing short-term warming."
It adds that "with an economic recovery tilted towards green stimulus and reductions in fossil fuel investments, it is possible to avoid future warming of 0.3 °C by 2050." But according to Myron Ebell, who leads the Center for Energy and Environment at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), even those changes would be futile.
“Since the first global warming treaty was signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent subsidizing renewable energy," Ebell told Fox News on Thursday. "Yet the only thing that has bent the curve of rising global greenhouse gas emissions has been the current economic collapse. But the drop in emissions caused by the shutdown is just a first step. To achieve the emissions targets agreed to in the Paris climate treaty in 2015 would require similar hits to the global economy every year for the next thirty years.”
Like the Nature Climate Change study, Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates recently pointed out that despite hemorrhaging huge sums of money, the economic shutdown left the world still needing comprehensive change.
“What’s remarkable is not how much emissions will go down because of the pandemic, but how little," he said. He pushed for quick action, noting that "[i]t will take decades to develop and deploy all the clean-energy inventions we need."
Under former President Barack Obama, the international community rallied around the Paris Climate Agreement, which aimed to reduce global temperature increases by 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The study's authors argue that goal would still be in reach if the world pursued a "green stimulus recovery" from the pandemic.
Still, it's unclear if the world can undergo the amount of structural transformation to adequately reduce emissions. In November, the United Nations released a report claiming that the international community had already fallen behind the goals it undertook just a few years prior. It called on the world to increase its efforts "five-fold" even as the U.S. -- one of the world's largest emitters -- pulled out of the agreement due to economic concerns.
The World Resources Institute posits that in order to reach the Paris temperature goal, the world would need to reduce global emissions to zero by 2050 -- something U.S. lawmakers have reached for with their own proposals. For example, the Green New Deal seeks to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
Liberals have defended such sweeping proposals as economically beneficial. For example, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has estimated savings as high as $70.4 trillion over 80 years by "averting climate catastrophe."
But conservative studies indicate the burden of comprehensive transformation is simply too great.
The Heritage Foundation attempted to use the Energy Information Administration's National (EIA) Energy Model to forecast the impact of steep carbon taxes aimed at reaching net-zero. Not only did the model crash, it failed to approach anywhere near the goal outlined in the plan. The closest Heritage was able to get was a 58 percent reduction in emissions, achieved through a $300 carbon tax -- taxes above $300 crashed the EIA's model.
Other studies from Ebell's group have attempted to measure the cost for just part of the massive climate proposal, and found swing state households could face around $75,000 within the first year or implementation. Democrats argue their plans would spur economic growth, provide jobs, and assist low-income Americans.
For example, Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., released a "Green New Deal for Public Housing." "The legislation is expected to create nearly 250,000 good-paying, union jobs per year across the country while reducing carbon emissions on the scale of taking 1.2 million cars off the road over the next ten years," a press release claimed.
It added: "Public housing costs would also be reduced by $97 million per year, or 30 percent, and energy costs would be slashed by $613 million, or 70 percent."
As Ebell noted, emissions have been increasing without any major disruptions since the 90s. Back in April, Anthony Watts of the conservative Heartland Institute released an analysis claiming that despite lower emissions, the world's atmospheric levels of CO2 remained the same.
Both the Heartland Institue and CEI have been criticized for their ties to the Charles Koch who, with his late brother David, led a company that manufactured petroleum products. Heartland maintains that it never received funding from Koch Industries and that Charles' charitable foundation funded a project on free-market health care solutions, but not climate change.
The United Nations 2019 emissions gap report, which examines shortfalls in reaching its climate goals, expressed optimism in some countries’ commitments to reduce emissions. It argued that countries could surpass the 1.5 degree Celsius goal if they met their current conditional Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC’s) -- or commitments they pledged to fulfill under certain conditions surrounding capability and resources.
Overall, though, the report said that emissions continued to rise in spite of political attempts to address the issue. It argued that with current baseline or “unconditional” NDC’s, there’s a “66 percent chance that warming will be limited to 3.2°C by the end of the century.”