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2020 was a year like no other. We stayed home, cut our own hair, and got reacquainted with neighborhood walks. But how did our drastic lifestyle changes affect energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions?

When the U.S. started to lock down during March 2020, the nation saw a sudden and sharp decrease in demand for oil and gas. Transportation demands shifted from air travel and commuter travel to increased use of renewable electricity, which the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported “far outpaced the contribution of coal-fired power plants.” 

The decrease in mass transportation and closure of major factories around the world resulted in significant decreases in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Nature.org reported a 6.4% decrease in global carbon dioxide emissions. The U.S. alone saw a 13% decrease, largely due to the extended nature of the pandemic impacting transportation and work, as well as the sharp decline in air travel.

Surprisingly, many climate researchers expected these decreases to be more significant, considering the worldwide shutdowns. Unfortunately, they’re predicting emissions will quickly rebound as vaccines become more available, and people resume their pre-pandemic routines.

Although our day-to-day routines have changed pretty dramatically, the average consumer has had surprisingly little impact on global energy consumption this past year. 

We’re spending more time than ever at home and online. According to the IEA, global internet traffic increased by nearly 40% between February and April 2020. People in lockdown around the world flocked to the internet, finding themselves in video conferences, gaming online with distant friends, streaming videos, and engaging on social media. During this period, residential energy consumption increased for many people.

During this same period, however, the world actually saw a net decrease in energy consumption, with some countries seeing as much as a 25% decrease compared to the same time period in 2019. The BBC reported in April 2020 that, although residential energy consumption in the United Kingdom was up by as much as 30%, the closure of large factories was driving the country’s total usage down 20% lower than the same period during the previous year.

In fact, experts predicted that 2020’s total global energy consumption would fall far below 2019. However, an IEA report from Jan. 2021 reveals that power consumption rose by the end of the year and exceeded 2019 usage by 8% as many countries reopened and resumed “business as usual.”

It’s important to note the huge impact that reducing transportation and fossil fuel emissions had on reducing GHG during this past year. Individuals can make a difference fighting climate change, but fossil fuel companies have spent years pushing the blame on individuals when adaptations in the energy industry could make the biggest difference: for example, a couple of months of burning significantly fewer fossil fuels saw a global decrease in GHG emissions roughly double the amount of Japan’s normal annual emissions.

It’s true that we’re spending more time at home and consuming more electricity, but what impact does that have? 

Streaming, for example, might not have as big of an impact as you think. A 2014 study in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters which found that an individual streaming video for 30 minutes resulted in emissions of about 0.2 kilograms of CO2. That’s about the equivalent of driving 0.5 miles. 

The remaining Colstrip units in Montana, on the other hand, produce about 11 millions tons of GHG each year. To put that into perspective, you’d have to continuously stream Netflix for more than 2.8 million years to produce the amount of carbon dioxide that Colstrip produces in one year.

That’s why MEIC is dedicated to fighting corporations and big interest groups who can make the most impact fighting climate change. Because if one year of staying at home has taught us anything, it’s that we need to make some big cuts in our fossil fuel usage if we want to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

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