On the first Earth Day 50 years ago, citizens of all ages and political persuasions came together to make the case for protecting the air, water and other species. Virtually no one had even heard of …
On the first Earth Day 50 years ago, citizens of all ages and political persuasions came together to make the case for protecting the air, water and other species. Virtually no one had even heard of climate change. And certainly no one imagined that, half a century later, humanity would be in the throes of a devastating pandemic.
The coronavirus has turned the world upside down, swiftly causing colossal disruption on a previously unimaginable scale. We fear for our lives and our livelihoods. New directives are issued every day, and uncertainty is a constant. Those of us fortunate enough to have homes wonder if we will need to hunker down in them until a vaccine is available.
If this degree of chaos is what a pandemic looks like, what will the coming climate catastrophe bring?
Like COVID-19, climate change threatens every aspect of our lives and livelihoods—only with no vaccine on the horizon. The International Panel on Climate Change has made it plain: to avert the worst damage, we need to drastically slash planet-warming emissions in the next 10 years.
Can we meet that deadline? The answer will be determined in no small part by the choices we make as we strive to resuscitate the virus-ravaged economy. Do we just throw money at it, guaranteeing a return to an economy powered by fossil fuels? Or do we take advantage of this extraordinary moment to hit reset and start a steady, planned transition to clean energy?
Some lawmakers are on board. The historic $2 trillion stimulus package originally required airlines to halve their emissions by 2050, but that provision was struck from the final bill. Future stimulus deals should not repeat that mistake.
Instead, our crisis response must be guided by a more thoughtful approach. As we rebuild the economy, policymakers should refrain from expanding our commitment to fossil fuels. And once the epidemic wanes, any stimulus should accelerate the transition to clean energy.
Now is the time for legislation to fund large-scale investment in clean-energy technologies and infrastructure in the post-virus world. Rock-bottom interest rates could facilitate major investments—not just in solar and wind, but in hydrogen and carbon capture so we can scale up these technologies and bring their cost down.
Government contracts and guarantees to reduce risks would make clean energy even more attractive to investors. Financial incentives could encourage energy-efficient building retrofits and the installation of heat pumps. Batteries, electric vehicle chargers, fiber-optic infrastructure and high-speed trains should all be part of the mix. And the next stimulus bill could include funding for the research and development of more sustainable aviation fuels.
Meanwhile, the steep drop in oil prices offers an ideal opportunity to implement the most pragmatic policy yet proposed to decarbonize our entire economy. By placing a steadily rising fee on the extraction of coal, oil and natural gas, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (EICDA) would spur businesses and consumers to move toward cleaner, cheaper options while creating millions of new jobs in communities across the nation. Money collected from the carbon fee would be allocated in equal shares every month to all Americans and help working people recover from the huge economic dislocation we are grappling with today.
Satellite images show that air pollution has been reduced over regions where COVID-19 has brought work and travel to a standstill. Greenhouse gas emissions will undoubtedly shrink this year, just as they did during the 2009 financial crisis. But if history is any guide, those declines will be erased if we take a business-as-usual approach to economic stimulus.
What if we were to implement the EICDA instead? Modeling shows that we would cut carbon emissions by 40 percent in 12 years and 90 percent by 2050. This is just the sort of bold action we need now to make sure the current dip is more than a temporary anomaly.
It is in our power to ensure that 2020 is remembered not just for the pandemic, but as the year in which emissions started to decline for good. Frankly, we can think of no better way to mark Earth Day’s golden jubilee. We have a historic opportunity to build a carbon-free economy. Let’s not squander it.
Claire Cohen-Norris and Rebekah Creshkoff are volunteers with Citizens Climate Lobby, a nonpartisan advocacy organization focused on national policies to address climate change. Cohen-Norris founded its Mid Hudson West chapter, which represents Sullivan County and western portions of Orange County.
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