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Covid carbon drop hides mass pollution by only 100 corporations

Global carbon emissions will probably drop by 8% this year, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. This is an agency designed to favour narratives that advance the cause of wind, solar and other sustainable energy sources. But as an intergovernmental organisation, its research is solid and its conclusions tend to be fair.

Eight percent is a big deal. It would be the single biggest drop in carbon emissions in industrial history.

The drop comes at a huge human cost, with at least a quarter of a million dead from Covid-19 and its co-morbidities, and mass unemployment as the world’s economies stumble under the shock of this moment.

It also exposes something broken at the core of how the world works. Covid-19 is one of the biggest-ever hits to our modern world. Billions of people are under lockdown and tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people have lost their livelihoods. People have stopped moving. Airlines are collapsing. Car sales in South Africa were down 98% last month.

Yet people are still emitting 92% of the carbon we would emit in a “normal” year.

Clearly, while individuals are doing all sorts of things that would dramatically reduce their carbon footprints, it has little effect. The United Nations’ climate agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said two years ago that emissions have to drop by at least 7.5% every year to 2030 if catastrophic global heating is to be avoided.

Industry lobby groups have put an absurd amount of money and effort into convincing everyone that the solution to the climate crisis lies with individual action. And yes, individuals run corporations and individuals lead countries and create regulation, but it is corporations that pollute. It is the oil majors that, through corrupt political systems, are being bailed out in the United States. It is just 100 companies — oil, fuel, coal — globally that are responsible for 70% of all carbon emissions throughout our history.

Because of these emissions trapping heat, the world is heating. Last week the United States National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration said there is a 75% chance that this will be the hottest year ever recorded. The current record is held by 2016, which had an El Niño — a phenomenon that rapidly heats large parts of the world — to help it set the record. This year’s record is being set by the extra heat trapped in the atmosphere by our carbon emissions.

Maybe what comes out of Covid-19 is an honest accounting of who is really responsible for the climate crisis.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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