At the peak of the lockdown, in April 2020, emissions were down 17% globally from a year ago (Le Quéré et al. 2020). By early June, daily carbon-dioxide emissions were within 5% of their 2019 levels, and by September, global emissions were nearly back to pre-pandemic levels. The forecast is that 2020 emissions will likely be between 4 and 7% lower than last year (World Meteorological Association 2020). To keep global warming within 1.5 °C, scientists tell us that emissions must drop by 7% a year on average (World Meteorological Association 2020).
The coronavirus pandemic provided an unmatched opportunity to witness how much widespread behavior change can help in the fight against climate change. The answer is not very much. Lockdowns drive down emissions when universally implemented, but they are not sustainable and cause widespread economic damage. Focusing on personal carbon footprints does nowhere near enough to curb global warming and is, in fact, a dangerous distraction from the collective advocacy we need to transform our culture, economy, and energy systems. The reason is that the vast majority of environmental impact is the result of industrial activities, and individual actions do not address the incentives and structures that created the problem. Here are a few examples.