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The Illusion of Peacefulness

Associate and environmentalist Professor Paul Clarke reminds us not to confuse clear skies with clean skies - there are bigger battles still to fight.

Cities are empty of cars, the skies are blue and clear of planes, the waters of Venice are crystal clear and people are talking about the positive effects of the coronavirus on the environment.

But wait a minute! Global CO2 emissions are on-track to drop by just around 5.5 per cent.

So 95 per cent of the carbon dioxide released annually will still prevail. With the world on lockdown and economies frozen, where do these emissions come from?

Personal footprint is the default position for most of us in response to climate change and, frankly, it is immaterial unless we also look at the wider structural consequences of modern life.

Transport takes up a just about 20 per cent of global emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. So, even if we all jump on the electric vehicle bandwagon or commute on electric trains and fly in the hypothetical electric planes then there would still be another 80 per cent of fossil fuel emissions to account for in daily life.

Where else might we look for emissions?

Electricity and heating for over 40 per cent of global emissions. Many people around the world rely on wood, coal, and natural gas to keep their homes warm and cook their food — and in most places, electricity isn’t remotely green.

With a shift from offices to homes demanding daily energy, the power simply hasn’t been turned off - and that power is still being generated largely by fossil fuels.

Manufacturing, construction and other types of industry also add to the pile of emissions, approximately 20 per cent. Processes such as steel production use huge amounts of fossil fuels and that type of production has mostly continued despite the pandemic.

Best estimates suggest that emissions need to be cut by 7.6 per cent every year to prevent global warming passing 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — the threshold that is associated with the most dangerous climate consequences according to an analysis by the United Nations Environment Program.

If the global lockdown and economic crash reduce emissions by 7.6 per cent this year, emissions would still have to fall even more the year after that. And the year after that. And so on.

This will require a massive change of consciousness in the way we all live in developed nations.

In other words, don’t mix up a clear blue sky with wishful thinking that we can simply stop. It is a whimsical illusion. Actions have to be taken in systemic and structural ways worldwide.

A mucky skyline across an urban space conflates air and water pollution with CO2 emissions. After all, carbon dioxide is invisible. Power plants and oil refineries are still pumping tons of it into the atmosphere with little if any punitive challenge from governments.

Sure, take a bike, don’t fly, recycle, but remember that such actions are lifestyle choices within a much bigger systemic agenda and are symptoms of the wider problem, because the really big embedded structural problems haven’t changed.

A small drop in carbon emissions will not lead to any changes in the trend of planetary warming.

Appreciate the clarity of the sky during lockdown, suck in the breathable air, relish the abundance of nature responding to more space being available.

And then take a deep look at modern life. This might be the only chance we have in a lifetime to do this in such a manner.

Beneath the superficial chatter we need real, radical structural change. [ITL]

About the author

Professor Paul Clarke

Professor Paul Clarke

Paul is an educator, environmentalist and long-time Associate who has worked at governmental level in projects in areas including China, Moldova and the Australian outback. He has an understanding of climate-related challenges - and what we must do about them - that can make for uncomfortable but essential reading.

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