The coronavirus pandemic isn’t just impacting human lives, but also our environment: worldwide carbon emissions have fallen by 17% as a result of lockdowns, border closures, and reduced economic activity.
While this drop might be the largest in recorded history, experts are casting doubt on its long-term effects, anticipating that levels will return to pre-COVID-19 levels once countries return to normal.
Despite this sobering information, the silver lining is that our planet may already be reaping the benefits from measures set in place prior to the lockdowns and that we’re still a step in the right direction.
The UK’s carbon dioxide emission levels are a good example of this. According to Carbon Brief analysis, UK emissions have fallen by a total of 29% in the last 10 years. This level was last seen in the year 1888, back when the famous Tower Bridge was still being built and Queen Victoria was still the reigning monarch.
The decline in emissions was largely driven by a 29% reduction in UK coal use in 2019. Just a decade ago, 40% of the country’s electricity was generated from coal. Now, coal only accounts for 2% of the UK’s electricity generation, even lower than solar power. But how exactly is coal harming the environment, you might ask?
A Word on Coal
The widespread use of coal as a power source began in 1882 when the Edison Electric Light Company opened the world’s first commercial coal-fired power station in London. For over a century after that, much of the world relied heavily on coal to supply power to its citizens.
The adaptation of coal as a power source is responsible for driving global emissions to alarming levels. The burning of coal and other fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which increases levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Coal-fired power plants have been proven to emit more of these greenhouse gases than any other source of electricity available. Communities located near these plants are also at risk of being poisoned by mercury and other heavy metal emissions.
Furthermore, mining coal releases harmful methane into the atmosphere, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The stripping away of land to access underground coal reserves also causes massive destruction of landscapes and animal habitats, deforestation, flooding, and water source contamination.
On the bright side, the remaining coal plants in the UK are set to be shut down in the next five years. In addition, so far in 2020, renewable sources of energy in the UK have generated more electricity than all fossil fuel-based sources combined: the former being responsible for 37% of power supplied to the network, versus 35% for the latter.
The Way Forward
Still, more work needs to be done. While emissions are dropping at a steady rate, it is projected that the UK will only be cutting 10% of its emissions by 2030, which is way short of the 31% target it needs to achieve to meet its carbon budgets.
What are the consequences of going over carbon budgets? The current global warming level of 1°C is already causing a significant negative impact on the Earth’s climate, which has dire consequences for human health and the environment. A 2°C increase would have an even more devastating impact, and this is precisely what we are trying to avoid by setting carbon “budgets”, or the maximum allowable emissions to keep global warming levels below a more “manageable” 1.5°C.
Drastically reducing our reliance on fossil fuels like coal and shifting towards renewables is our biggest hope towards making sure that this is achieved. The lockdowns, perhaps, may have given us a taste of what a world run on sustainable energy sources might be like. But as we begin to return to business as usual, we will need to continue to work for a planet that can still be enjoyed by future generations.