Recession Is Good For Climate Change, Say Experts

  • Published on March 30th, 2009

In 2007, the United States clocked in at 7.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. This year, though, the Energy Department predicts we might be end the year at 6.98 billion tons.

Are efforts to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide actually working, or is there something else going on here? The answer, according to an economist at Harvard, is the latter: The recession will cause a drop in carbon emissions simply because there won’t be as many industries, homes and vehicles spewing the greenhouse gas into the air.

Richard Stavins, the Harvard professor, said in a story in New Jersey’s Star-Ledger that the recession has global implications for climate change, too. Because countries that have struggled with Kyoto targets won’t have to struggle so much anymore, they can divest more attention into creating a more seamless policy to follow the Kyoto Protocol in December’s Copenhagen climate meetings.

“So there’s an opportunity in the terrible tragedy of this economic downturn to help the negotiators of the world to make sure that they get the next international climate agreement right,” Stavins said in the Star-Ledger story.

This may be true, but have past recessions actually led to a decrease in carbon dioxide emissions? I decided to look at the recessions, both major and minor, in the last century in the United States and compare them to carbon dioxide emissions from those years to see if there was a decrease. What I found was that it could be kind of a crap shoot which recessions cause decreases.

However, the one thing that remained consistent was that emissions only increased even more after the recession period was over.

Here are my results: Have recessions caused carbon dioxide emissions to go down?

1907-1908: NO. There was no discernible decrease in emissions during this short economic panic.

1918-1921: NO. The post-World War I recession didn’t cause a decrease in emissions, either, but in the years leading up to the Great Depression, emissions bounced around a lot.

1929-1939: YES. In the middle of the Great Depression, carbon dioxide emissions dipped to about 3.5 million metric tons, down from about 4.75 million at the beginning of the Depression.

1953-1954: YES. In 1950, carbon dioxide emissions were at about 6.25 million metric tons. By 1953 they had decreased to around 6 million.

1957-1958: YES. Emissions went down a bit, but the amount is too small to have made much of a difference.

1960-1961: NO. This short recession didn’t see a decrease in carbon emissions.

1973-1975: NO. Definitely no. Carbon emissions at this point were up, up and away!

1980-1982: YES. In the late 1970s, carbon dioxide emissions had hit about 1.275 billion metric tons, but by in the early 1980s they had dropped to 1.18 billion, and after a spike shortly after they dropped back down to that mark.

1990-1991: NO. Any decreases here were negligible.

2001: NO. Again, there were no emissions decreases here that would have made a difference.

Note: These numbers are based on looking at a graph of carbon dioxide emissions and may not be 100 percent correct. They should, however, be close. But if you’re a climate expert and can place them more accurately, please let me know.

Photo Credit: mickdansforth at Flickr under a Creative Commons License

About the Author

My name is Amanda, and I'm a recent grad from Michigan State University. At MSU I was involved in the environmental journalism program and have written for the school's environmental journal and E, The Environmental Magazine. I'm delving into freelancing now, and will spend the summer in NYC as an intern at NYC Parks and Recreation.