Financial Crisis Is 'Green' For The Environment

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New studies are projecting that carbon dioxide emissions — greenhouse gas emissions — will decrease for the year 2009. That is thanks to the global recession. But the reprieve is small and expected to be short lived.


And now to the global recession. If there is a silver lining to it, perhaps this is it: Studies are projecting that the world's carbon dioxide emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, will actually decrease this year.

David Kestenbaum of our Planet Money team has the story.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Carbon dioxide emissions have been growing globally at three and half percent a year. But for 2009, emissions are expected to drop by about three percent. That's nothing to sneeze at. The difference is like shutting down 400 coal power plants or taking all the cars in the United States off the road for a year. Corinne Le Quere is professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia in England.

Professor CORINNE LE QUERE (University of East Anglia): So that's equivalent to stopping global emissions by approximately three weeks.

KESTENBAUM: Like shutting down the whole planet for three weeks.

Prof. LE QUERE: Yeah. That's it.

KESTENBAUM: The International Energy Agency recently put out a report reaching the same conclusion. Chris Mullin is an economist there. He says the recession actually buys the planet a little more time to combat global warming.

Mr. CHRIS MULLIN (International Energy Agency): If you look it at over a 20 year time period, at the impact of the financial crisis, we're estimating a saving at around 35 gigatons of CO2, which is equivalent to roughly a full year of global CO2 emissions.

KESTENBAUM: Still, he says, that really just kicks the problem down the road a bit. And Corinne Le Quere says don't get too excited.

Prof. LE QUERE: No, no, this is peanuts in terms of time. This is extremely small. This is nothing.

KESTENBAUM: The problems, she says, is that emissions go up when the world's economies grow. Emissions basically track global GDP. As the world gets richer, more people buy cars who didn't have them before. People use more electricity, and they buy things that require electricity to make.

Prof. LE QUERE: So if the wealth continues to increase like it has been, which is desirable, the CO2 will continue to increase unless the growth is decoupled from the CO2 emissions, and that requires actions, not just a recession, it requires actual changing the industry system which produces the energy that we need to grow.

KESTENBAUM: Le Quere led a team that is publishing their findings in the journal Nature Geoscience. If you just look at the emissions in the United States, the recession's effects are pretty amazing. A recent estimate by the U.S. government predicts that from 2007 to 2009 our country's carbon emissions will drop by nine percent. But Le Quere says, again, that's not as good as it seems. Even if the U.S. can keep its emissions down, emissions from the developing world are shooting up. Places like China and India are pumping more and more Greenhouse gases into the air, in part because they're getting richer and in part because they are making stuff that we over here are buying. Scientists can sometimes find records of financial events in nature. You can see the fingerprints of the Great Depression in the Arctic ice. There was a drop in lead pollution. But researchers say this recession, as big as it is, it's impact on carbon emissions will probably be too small to leave a trace.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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