Coronavirus and Climate Change

  • Wednesday, 15 July 2020 10:04

Ethanol Producer Magazine

Jul 14, 2020

This winter, countries around the globe introduced months of unprecedented lockdown and shelter-in-place restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19. An economic shutdown is the worst possible way to get environmental improvement, full stop. However, only a few weeks into lockdown, many noticed fresher air, and earnest talk began of this being a serious wake-up call about the environment. Whether governments in Canada will capitalize on this moment, however, remains to be seen. 

The pandemic quickly cut down car traffic and saw oil prices plummet, a combination that set off a record 5 percent drop in annual carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Environmentally impressive but not at all perfect. First, this record cut in global emissions is still less than what scientists say is needed every year this decade to avoid disastrous climate impacts for much of the world. Second, even with remarkably less traffic, air pollution did not improve. Analysis by NPR shows that while car traffic decreased by 40 percent across the U.S., ozone pollution dropped only by 15 percent or less, which is to say barely at all, compared with levels over the past five years. Part of the reason is continued air pollutants beyond those from passenger cars, like emissions from trucking, refineries, petrochemical plants and coal power. But the more important lesson is that merely driving less, in and of itself, does little to improve climate outcomes unless we find ways to make sustained improvements. Put another way, the long-term solution remains cleaner fuel, not fewer cars. 

Next come automobiles. On the surface, having a car can seem unnecessary when working from home and getting more purchases delivered. However, an April survey by Capgemini Research Institute suggests otherwise. Capgemini surveyed more than 11,000 potential buyers in 11 countries that account for 62 percent of global vehicle sales. It found half of all global respondents said they plan to drive their cars more in the future and will rely less on public transportation and ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft. The reason: “greater control of hygiene.” At the same time, one-third of those surveyed said they plan to buy a car in 2020, with 45 percent of those potential buyers under age 35. That’s a significant percentage, considering that 79 percent of people ages 25 to 35 currently do not own cars. Policymakers need to take note, especially when projecting post-pandemic vehicle fleets and fuel mixes.

As I write this, many jurisdictions are beginning to reopen. Consumers are emerging eager to return to a semblance of “normal”—including driving and the associated carbon and tailpipe emissions. Ethanol blended in gasoline is proven to reduce both, and those designing Canada’s Clean Fuel Standard and proposed provincial increases to E15 in Ontario and Quebec should take note. Even though the pandemic delivered an unprecedented shock, the prospect of a green recovery will ultimately be decided by the strength of our climate policies and the content of our gas tanks.

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