The Post-Pandemic Era Has Been An Environmental Failure for Americans
Amidst the chaos and despair of the COVID-19 pandemic, one silver lining emerged: the temporary improvement in environmental conditions. As countries went into lockdown and people stayed home in unprecedented numbers, the global community saw a remarkable decrease in industrial and transportation activities, resulting in cleaner air and water, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Wildlife started to reclaim their homes, and the sound of birdsong filled the air. For a brief moment, the pandemic gave us a glimpse of what the world could look like with more sustainable practices and a more profound respect for our planet.
All across the globe there were noticeable improvements in environmental health. The Grand Canal turned clear in Venice, New Dehli’s India Gate was no longer obscured by a dark haze, and Americans from Los Angeles to New York City got a clear glimpse of the long-forgotten beauty of their skylines (albeit predominantly through their windows) .
In China and the United States, the world’s greatest greenhouse gas emitting nations, there were short-term reductions in harmful emissions. Between January and April 2020, China’s CO2 emissions fell by 11.5% in comparison to the same period the previous year , and NO2 emissions decreased by roughly 20-30% . Meanwhile in the United States, CO2 emissions fell by about 5.4% over the course of 2020 , and NO2 emissions decreased by nearly 30% . Even seemingly minor decreases in carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide drastically improved air quality in these countries and around the world during this period.
Yet today, as businesses reopen, unemployment decreases, public health systems recover, and people return to their previous routines, the emissions have also returned. In fact, it did not take long at all. As soon as December 2020, carbon dioxide emissions had rebounded to pre-pandemic levels in China , and although the United States saw a promising initial decrease in carbon emissions during the pandemic, total atmospheric carbon continued to rise at a relatively stable rate . The environmental serenity was tragically short-lived. Policymakers in the United States scrambled to devise effective ways to adapt and eventually rebuild the American economy, yet largely neglected environmental discussions. Sure, the economic and public health crises facing Americans and the rest of the world alike were enough to distract even the most well-intentioned policymakers. However, the failure to capitalize on the pandemic to accelerate the green transition was ultimately a missed opportunity by the United States. Not only did the improved environmental conditions at the time provide an encouraging vision of environmental augmentation, but the government was already presented with a unique opportunity to execute unprecedented, fundamental policy changes to combat the pandemic. In the process of building back a resilient economy, politicians should have prioritized the implementation of comprehensive climate policies. Without sustainable environmental solutions in place, the economy remains at risk of another tragic blow. The overhauled COVID-19 response was direct evidence that unified cooperation in the United States is achievable when faced with particularly urgent issues. The current climate trajectory in the United States is expected to precipitate an increase of at least 2.7°F for all scenarios except the one representing the most aggressive mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions . Maintaining this course will mean more frequent and severe natural disasters, unsustainably rising sea levels, and conditions that increase the possibility of future devastating pandemics . A similar urgency and unified mobilization to the COVID-19 response will be essential to combat these large-scale, anticipated environmental crises.
Luxembourg provides an interesting case study of a nation that seized the moment to create forward-thinking changes. This case provides evidence that taking the initiative to incorporate environmental policy into COVID recovery is productive. Despite being the second smallest European Union nation by population, Luxembourg has historically been responsible for disproportionately high greenhouse gas emissions per capita. At the onset of the pandemic, per capita CO2 emissions in Luxembourg (15.3 metric tons) exceeded the per capita figure in the United States (14.7 metric tons) . Recognizing the need for action, Luxembourg made climate policy a major priority in its recovery plans in the wake of the pandemic. In June of 2021, the nation announced a €93 million ‘Recovery and Resilience Plan’ which aimed to establish a roadmap for rebuilding an economy capable of withstanding the challenges of a post-COVID world. Sixty-one percent of the funding under this plan was allocated to investments in clean energy and biodiversity protection . By enlarging the network of electric vehicle charging stations, generating new housing districts powered by renewable energies, and allocating financial resources towards protecting biodiversity, Luxembourg reinvigorated its economy through sustainable investments.
While Luxembourg and the United States have both ranked poorly in environmental performance, the key difference lies in Luxembourg’s proactivity. In large part due to the COVID recovery policies, Luxembourg’s climate policy is now ranked among the best in the world in the Climate Change Performance Index, while the United States does not even crack the top 50 . Although it still has a ways to go, Luxembourg’s forward-thinking policies smartly addressed climate change and COVID simultaneously. These changes are expected to create jobs, increase national GDP, and shorten the path toward carbon neutrality by nearly 20 years .
But why exactly did the United States stumble in such a crucial moment for environmental legislation?
When environmental health first became politically salient in 1970s America, it was largely a unifying issue. Democrats and Republicans found common ground in the obvious urgency to preserve eroding natural systems. However, the late 20th century initiated a wave of unprecedented political polarization in the United States as politicians took hard stances on ‘hot-button’ social issues, which perpetuated this divide. Today’s America is marked by high levels of dissent between the political parties, and environmental issues have not been left out of the fold . Conservative rhetoric on the environment began to shift as ideologies clashed with green policies, and fossil fuel lobbyists worked extensively to dissuade action. Economic growth appeared incompatible with the emission-reducing goals of environmentalism, and meanwhile, stakeholders in the fossil fuel industry financially braced the Republican party and its candidates in exchange for favorable voting and governance. And despite indisputable scientific evidence of climate change and its critical impacts, climate denialism festered as right-wing media outlets, conspiracy theorists, and fossil fuel interest groups spread misinformation about the urgency and feasibility of action on climate change.
Partisanship in the United States has been a roadblock to the implementation of successful environmental policy in recent history. Generally, economists and politicians have agreed that the most effective forms of environmental policy center around carbon pricing, which is a market-based strategy to put the cost of emissions on those responsible. Hypothetically, carbon pricing strategies like carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems create financial incentives for lowering emissions and consequently encourage a green energy transition . Yet, a lack of bipartisan support has meant few of these policies have managed to see the light of day in the United States. In 1993, President Clinton attempted to pass a substantial energy tax that aimed to increase the cost of all non-renewable fuel sources. Despite having majorities in both houses of Congress and achieving initial success in the House, a substantial lobbying effort and outspoken opposition from Robert Byrd, a Democratic senator from West Virginia, caused the bill to fail. In Byrd’s explanation for his opposition to the bill, he explained that higher energy costs were simply not in the best interest of the citizens of West Virginia . Similarly, in 2009, President Obama’s Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill fizzled in the Senate after losing Republican support, and would ultimately lead pro-fossil fuel interest groups to contribute record amounts to Republican candidates in the 2010 midterm elections .
Despite being the primary policy approach for lawmakers, opposition from both sides of the aisle has strongly limited the feasibility and effectiveness of instituting carbon pricing in the United States. Meanwhile, in 2022 an all-time high– nearly $1 trillion USD– was spent worldwide subsidizing the fossil fuel industry . Much of this comes from the United States, causing this already massive industry to grow even further. While fossil fuels remain such a substantial facet of the political-economic landscape, carbon pricing policies are unlikely to find widespread popularity in this divisive political climate. This helps explain in part why the United States did not capitalize on COVID recovery to accelerate its green transition. Without exemplary policy implementations of the past, and a lack of bipartisan mandate, substantial environmental elements were omitted from COVID recovery plans to give them the best shot at success– which ultimately, was a mistake.
The United States must overcome partisan politics and make forward-thinking environmental policies a reality to stop the impending tragedies posed by climate change. The period of pandemic recovery presented a unique window for sweeping change, yet policymakers balked at the opportunity. The fossil fuel industry has simply proven to be too intertwined with the American economy and political power structure to expect carbon pricing initiatives to find success.
On August 16, 2022, the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) provided a shimmer of light for environmentalism in the United States. Marking the most progressive piece of green legislation in the United States to date, this bill refocused the American approach to large-scale environmental policy. Rather than making fossil fuels more expensive, this bill aimed entirely to make renewables cheaper. This investment approach departed from the traditional expectations of carbon pricing and ultimately gave a far more palatable plan for both Republicans and Democrats.
The Inflation Reduction Act addressed the very issue which plagued almost every prior piece of environmental legislation in the United States, by providing environmental incentives rather than punishments. Throughout the bill, there was a multitude of tax credits that rewarded large manufacturers and individuals for their investments in renewable technologies. Tax credits for manufacturers producing wind turbines, solar panels, and other crucial clean energy machinery was increased by $30 billion, and nearly $370 billion was invested towards disadvantaged communities, intending to create jobs and repurpose old fossil fuel infrastructure . Ultimately, the continued success of the IRA would lead greenhouse gas emissions to drop 40% by 2030, which would be a major step forward for the United States .
President Biden certainly relied heavily on Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress to pass this landmark legislation, as he failed to garner a single Republican vote in the House or the Senate. However, an impressive transcendence of partisanship took place behind the scenes for the passage of the IRA. Despite not voting in favor of the bill, many Republicans refused to openly challenge it. At the 2022 midterm elections, Republicans attacked Joe Biden on many fronts, yet almost entirely refrained from criticizing the IRA, his most comprehensive piece of legislation. Much of the funding contained within the bill would ultimately prove to be quite advantageous for Republican districts and their constituents. Criticizing the bill was thus counterintuitive for these legislators, despite its liberal origin and provisions. In fact, a study by Data for Progress found that nearly 73% of American voters support the Inflation Reduction Act, including more than half of surveyed Republicans . In a time where political unity is scarce, this mandate is quite impressive.
The Inflation Reduction Act provides direct evidence that a new approach to environmental policy, focused on renewable energy investment, is needed in the United States. Although the preservation of the planet should ultimately be an issue that extends beyond political lines, Americans have struggled to find common ground. Policies that effectively bypass the stonewalls of partisanship– which have long stalled meaningful achievements in this arena– should be prioritized and it now seems clear that an investment-based approach provides the best opportunity for success. Even though the United States still largely missed a chance throughout the COVID-19 recovery period to further the nation’s green transition, the IRA was a meaningful step forward that should be emulated.
The pandemic gave Americans an opportunity to learn several valuable lessons about the necessary trajectory of environmental policy in the near future.
First, continuing to economically rely on fossil fuels, even with drastic emissions reductions, will not produce sufficient results. Research from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology found that although carbon dioxide emissions decreased over the course of 2020, the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere continued to grow . Historically, other socioeconomic disruptions in the United States were met with clear decreases in total atmospheric carbon, yet the pandemic alarmingly did not precipitate a similar drop. When OPEC imposed an oil embargo on the United States in 1973, the resulting energy crisis coincided with a reduced growth rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide . However, despite drastic decreases in transportation and industrial activity during the pandemic, overall atmospheric carbon growth remained relatively constant. COVID-19 demonstrated that Earth’s carbon sinks have now reached their carrying capacity, so even a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will not alleviate the pressures on the environment . Plus, the economic shutdown which coincided with the pandemic is not feasible for any sustainable operating point in the future. As the population grows in the United States and technologies become increasingly advanced, the need for energy will grow simultaneously. Ultimately, the only remaining option for the United States is a complete transition to carbon-free technologies.
Second, national mobilization in the face of perilous adversity is possible. Preventing the spread of COVID-19 required mass cooperation between governments and individuals across the globe. Nationwide lockdowns, social distancing provisions, and eventual vaccine development and roll-out required rapid policymaking and full-scale emergency response in the United States. As an equally monumental political-economic crisis, climate change will require comparable urgency and widespread mobilization. If the current pattern continues, climate change could prove to be infinitely more socioeconomically calamitous for the United States and the rest of the world.
We are at a crucial moment in the United States where investment in long-term energy solutions is essential. The priority for Americans no longer revolves around making conditions better but stopping them from getting devastatingly worse. Pandemic recovery was an entirely missed opportunity to establish a better green trajectory in the United States. However, taking these lessons in stride could be crucial to rectifying our mistakes going forward.
1. Rasmussen, Carol. “Emission Reductions From Pandemic Had Unexpected Effects on Atmosphere.” NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA, November 9, 2021. https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/emission-reductions-from-pandemic-had-unexpected-effects-on-atmosphere.
2. IEA. “Fossil Fuels Consumption Subsidies 2022.” IEA. IEA, February 2023. https://www.iea.org/reports/fossil-fuels-consumption-subsidies-2022.
3. Zheng, Bo, Guannan Geng, and Phillipe Ciais. “Satellite-Based Estimates of Decline and Rebound in China’s CO2 Emissions during COVID-19 Pandemic.” ScienceAdvances. American Association for the Advancement of Science, December 2, 2020. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abd4998.
4. “CO2 Emissions (Metric Tons per Capita).” The World Bank. World Bank Group. Accessed March 20, 2023. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PC?most_recent_value_desc=false.
5. “Luxembourg's Recovery and Resilience Plan.” European Commission. Accessed March 20, 2023. https://commission.europa.eu/business-economy-euro/economic-recovery/recovery-and-resilience-facility/luxembourgs-recovery-and-resilience-plan_en#:~:text=Luxembourg%27s%20recovery%20and%20resilience%20plan%20contains%2020%20measures%20.
6. “Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI).” Climate Change Performance Index. Germanwatch, December 6, 2022. https://ccpi.org/.
7. “Inflation Reduction Act.” US Congressman Jim Costa, September 20, 2022. https://costa.house.gov/inflation-reduction-act#:~:text=Data%20for%20Progress%20found%20that,more%20than%20half%20of%20Republicans.
8. Plumer, Brad. “U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions Bounced Back Sharply in 2021.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, January 10, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/10/climate/emissions-pandemic-rebound.html.
9. Krishnamoorti, Ramanan. “Hyperpolarization of Climate Policy – The Politics of American Exceptionalism.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, August 1, 2022. https://www.forbes.com/sites/uhenergy/2022/07/30/hyperpolarization-of-climate-policy--the-politics-of-american-exceptionalism/?sh=5f67bb0d7f95.
10. “What Is Carbon Pricing?” Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition. Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, 2021. https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what.
11. Barbanell, Melissa. “A Brief Summary of the Climate and Energy Provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.” World Resources Institute, October 28, 2022. https://www.wri.org/update/brief-summary-climate-and-energy-provisions-inflation-reduction-act-2022#:~:text=The%20Inflation%20Reduction%20Act%20.
12. United States Senate Democrats. "Inflation Reduction Act: One-Page Summary." Accessed March 21, 2023. https://www.democrats.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/inflation_reduction_act_one_page_summary.pdf.
13. Scott, Amy, and Richard Cunningham. “Why It's so Hard to Pass Climate Crisis Legislation in the U.S.” Marketplace, January 27, 2022. https://www.marketplace.org/2022/01/27/why-its-hard-pass-climate-crisis-legislation-u-s/.
14. Lavelle, Marianne. “2016: Obama's Climate Legacy Marked by Triumphs and Lost Opportunities.” Inside Climate News, December 7, 2020. https://insideclimatenews.org/news/26122016/obama-climate-change-legacy-trump-policies. [
15. “Future of Climate Change.” US Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed March 20, 2023. https://climatechange.chicago.gov/climate-change-science/future-climate-change.
16. Bennett, Kristen. "Climate Change: How Do We Know?" NASA, August 12, 2021. https://climate.nasa.gov/effects/.
17. Bastani, Houtan, and Amin Reza Kamalian. "Impact of COVID-19 on Environment and Society." Environmental Research 195 (2021): 110801. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2020.110801.
18. Hsu, Shari. "Q&A with a UCLA economist about the economics of climate change." UCLA Newsroom, October 21, 2015. https://newsroom.ucla.edu/stories/q-a-economist-248728.
19. Harvey, Fiona. "Tropical forests losing their ability to absorb carbon, study finds." The Guardian, March 4, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/04/tropical-forests-losing-their-ability-to-absorb-carbon-study-finds.