What has happened?

Joe Biden, only a month into his first term as 46th president of the United States, has spared no time in beginning to repair some of the political and environmental damage caused by his political predecessor. Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Change Agreement in 2017 sparked global outrage, and in 2020 the US officially withdrew. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreement, drawn up in Paris in 2015, frames global targets to improve action to mitigate, finance and adapt to growing pressures from climate change.

Originally signed by 196 member states, the agreement devolves local responsibility to each state, with the collective and overarching intention of preventing global average temperatures rising by more than 2oC. Any more than this would see catastrophic and irreversible impacts across the globe, such as increasing sea levels causing floods and land loss, and increased natural disasters like forest fires and intense tropical storms. Despite Covid-19 shutting down world economies and cutting global annual emissions by around 7% in 2020, to avoid reaching a 2oC increase, global emissions will need to continue to repeatedly decrease by 7% every year for the next decade (Columbia.edu, 2021).

But why is it so important?

The simple answer is emission inequality. In terms of absolute emissions, the US is the second largest polluter after China, responsible for 15% of total global emissions (OurWorldInData.org, 2020). Per capita, emissions for the US are ranked 2nd globally. This may come as somewhat of a surprise, given that the US is such a developed country with advanced technology and extensive climate laws. However, consumer behaviour research shows that around 39% of the population, a worrying 129 million people, are not concerned by climate change, and 20% believe that human activity plays little to no role at all increasing global emission levels (Pewresearch.org, 2019). As such, American society continues to be a major contributor to climate change.

The Kyoto Protocol, formulated in 1997 by the UNFCCC, first introduced the concept of carbon trading. The idea was that member states would be issued with an emission quota in the form of ‘carbon credits’. Members would not be allowed to exceed this quota without purchasing additional credits. The problem that arose was that wealthy countries with high emission levels were able to buy credits to increase their quotas from smaller poorer countries, often with lower emission levels. This created a flawed system and did not truly tackle the underlying issue, that wealthier developed countries are still not on track to sufficiently reduce emission levels, and Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement highlighted this inequality. 

In addition to this, by rejoining the agreement the USA is sending out an important message, one that the world will listen to. As such a powerful and influential state, this sets an optimistic precedent that will hopefully inspire and encourage other nations to take action also. Biden has already pledged that the USA will become a net zero state by 2050, and after a year of wildfires, coastal flooding, ice storms and hurricanes, taking steps to mitigate the effects of climate change are more important than ever. Led by Michael Regan, former environmental regulator, the US office looks promising in its strive to amend and improve current environmental policies.

Whilst states need to take individual responsibility for their sustainability efforts, international collaboration will also be crucial in preventing emission levels from reaching disastrous and potentially irreversible levels. Other key players in the climate conversation such as China, India, the UK and Australia must also increase internal pressure on climate laws, and can assist with the sustainable development of other emerging economies.

A year ago, the World Health Organisation declared a public health emergency due to the rapid outbreak of the Coronavirus disease. Many countries around the world immediately shut their borders and locked down their populations, some seeing lockdown measures lasting months. With most of the world stuck at home self-isolating or in quarantine, our consumption habits have altered dramatically as we transition into a new era of working from home and online shopping, whilst our relationship with travel and transport has totally evolved. This change in consumer demand and supply has had an unprecedented effect on global sustainability levels, contributing to a much-needed shift in both corporate and consumer attitudes towards more environmentally responsible behaviour.

Scientists have estimated that global carbon emission levels have dropped by as much as 17%during the course of the pandemic, levels that have not been seen since around the time of WWII. Figures show that in the first quarter of 2020, global primary energy demand fell by 3.8% compared to the year before, and predict that by the end of the year it will have dropped by 6%. This trend may be attributed to reasons such as a switch towards renewable energy, with global demand increasing by nearly 3% this year in comparison to 2019 levels. This goes hand in hand with the fact that a large portion of the population is being encouraged to work from home in the interest of public health.

Projected change in primary energy demand by fuel in 2020 relative to 2019  (Source: IEA, 2020)
Projected change in primary energy demand by fuel in 2020 relative to 2019 (Source: IEA, 2020)

This has led to a significant decline in demand for both public and private transport, as the travel industry has ground to a halt. The way we use transport has undergone a significant shift, as travel restrictions have been imposed. Over the UK’s lockdown period, bike retail giant Evans Cycles reported a 500% increase in demand for cycling equipment and shares in Halfords rose by 17%. Bike sales have been so popular that many avid cyclists have been left waiting months to receive their purchases, with some companies even extending their waiting periods into 2021. As a result, more commuters have chosen to ditch their cars and ride to work, contributing to a huge decrease in air pollution in cities such as London and Manchester. Despite the northern hemisphere experiencing record low temperatures, this trend has largely continued into the winter months and cities are starting to respond to growing demand for increased and improved cycling lanes and infrastructure.

Another major factor in the global drop in emissions is the growing investment in green and smart technology, which can help to reduce emission levels whilst also assisting in managing the spread of the virus. Smart technology is being implemented to help spatial analysis of populations, a notable example being motion-activated streetlights that help reduce electricity consumption. Not only does this benefit the environment, but analysts can use the data generated to map what areas in cities are most populated and can target these areas to offer services such as bike rental schemes. Similarly, many countries are offering subsidised schemes for homeowners to incorporate green technology in their home, such as solar panel installation, double-glazing and improved insulation, and at-home electric car charging stations. For example, earlier this year the UK government introduced a £3000 grant towards the purchase of an electric car and costs of home-charging, as more consumers choose to use private transport means during the pandemic. Through these discounted schemes, it is estimated that consumers are nearly three times more likely to use these energy-saving technologies.

On the other hand, the drop in emission levels has been curtailed by the growing global demand and shift to online retail. During the beginning months of the year under the strictest lockdown measures, many merchants saw an exponential rise in sales as people ‘panic’ bought supplies, stockpiling products such as toilet paper and hand sanitiser in fear of a shortage. This high demand placed great pressure on production, with manufacturers shipping supplies across the globe, only to result in overproduction as demand subsequently fell again. Similarly, online retail in the fashion industry has seen unprecedented growth. Fashion merchant ASOS has recorded profit growth of around 329% over lockdown, due to their cheap and fast home-delivery service. The IPCC estimates that fast fashion brands like these are responsible for up to 10% of all annual global carbon dioxide emissions. This can be attributed to factors such as the fact that the electricity in countries where fast fashion goods are mainly manufactured, such as India and China, is usually fossil fuel powered. Additionally, agricultural practices in these places typically involve the use of non-organic fertilisers which create soil degradation, not to mention the emissions produced from global transport and over-manufacturing. Earlier this year, fast fashion brand Missguided advertised a £1 bikini, which raised many environmental and ethical concerns for consumers, bringing into question how brands like these can afford to sell such low-priced products. The UK government is working with retailers to reach a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, however recent demand for fast fashion is likely to create setbacks.

Furthermore, the switch to online shopping has meant that shipping and transport emissions have increased exponentially. In March this year, online retail mogul Amazon recruited 75,000 workers in the US to meet growing demand, including thousands of delivery drivers. Despite the idea that online shopping saves customers travelling to stores and thus reducing emissions, studies have shown that this is often offset by a few factors. Interestingly, consumers are more likely to spend around 10% more when shopping online than they would in-store, given that many people are unable to travel to shops due to health risks. This means more products being manufactured and delivered, pushing up overall emission levels. Additionally, delivery trucks and another heavy-duty vehicles (HDVs) emit PM2.5, a toxic particle matter pollutant that affects air pollution levels, and are estimated to contribute to 30% of road transport emissions in the EU.

Despite this, consumer behaviour on the whole has seen a significant change towards more sustainable consumption during the pandemic. Support for small businesses has been rising, and consumers are placing more pressure on large companies to improve the ethical and environmental standards of their business models. The growing trend of green technology from both businesses and consumers will force governments and international bodies to rethink the way they function and manage their emission levels. As we begin to transition out of lockdown measures, we must try to maintain sustainable consumer behaviour as much as possible, to avoid a sudden surge in emission levels as life slowly returns back to some normality. High streets have already been struggling under recent economic austerity, and now have been forced to close their doors to the general public for months on end. Many of these businesses will not recover from the losses caused by the pandemic, and will join thousands of other defeated merchants in the competition against fast fashion and online retail.

Written by Tess Fitzgerald


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