As global carbon emissions continue to decrease due to COVID-19, history shows that this drop may not be sustainable. The Great Depression saw a carbon emissions drop of 26% as industrial production in the United States reduced exponentially, but in the years that followed, carbon dioxide spiked to higher levels than before as production raced to catch up.

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Since March 2020, emissions have again dropped to record lows as cars have stayed off the roads, flights have been cancelled and factory production has reduced or ceased due to the novel coronavirus. Time reported that global carbon emissions are projected to be 7% less in 2020 than in 2019, a level not seen in at least a decade. We’ve proven that we have the power to reduce emissions substantially, but if history has taught us anything, it is that making these changes last will be a much larger environmental obstacle.

Related: Coronavirus and its impact on carbon emissions

Inhabitat spoke with Ford Seeman, founder and president of nonprofit Forest Founders, to get some insight on carbon accountability and the steps we need to take to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself this time.

Inhabitat: Can you help define “carbon accountability”?

Ford Seeman: Carbon accountability is the concept of taking ownership for our unique carbon footprints. This includes trying to be mindful of the energy and resources we use, how they are sourced and measures to counteract their impact. [Forest Founders] offers subscription services to help offset what carbon emissions can’t be avoided.

fossil fuel plant against cloudy skies

Inhabitat: What do you think the environmental and climate improvements we’ve experienced since COVID-19 say about our world?

Seeman: We have seen improvements in places where we have been forced to change our behavior, like in the canals of Venice and the air above LA, but we still see disturbing trends such as carbon pollution increasing overall. Industry is the No. 1 contributor to our global carbon crisis and many of the worst industrial polluters didn’t slow down at all during COVID-19. We have still had industrial disasters, like Nornickel’s spill in the Russian permafrost and the continued flaring and leakage of natural gas across the world at almost every well pump and refining site.

Even though there were points during quarantine where a huge number of the Earth’s population was locked down, we still only saw an average of 8% decline in carbon emissions. With the entirety of the U.S. on lockdown, we would have expected that number to have been greater considering our outsized carbon footprint compared to the rest of the world, but we didn’t. Andrew Yang stated in his town hall on climate change that the solution has to be at the government level. I am becoming more inclined to agree, even though it disturbs me. There is one caveat, we control who is in charge in the government. We need to demand our politicians stop taking oil money, stop these backwards oil subsidies and stand with us, with the planet’s best interests coming first.

Inhabitat: How can we continue reducing carbon emissions, air pollution, etc. as we begin reopening?

Seeman: We need to connect our stimulus programs to environmental reform. We need to overhaul how we produce energy and what we consider renewable. We can’t cut down old growth forests to use as fuel and consider it sustainable. Oil subsidies are a backwards tradition that impede our environmental progress. Our economy is supposed to reward the best solutions. Oil subsidies don’t allow this to happen in the energy sector.

By making fossil fuel projects more profitable through subsidies, we are standing in the way of progress. Firms like Blackrock divesting from fossil fuels is an indicator that our system is broken. These firms are about making money. If they divested 10 years ago when renewables were more expensive than fossil fuels, it would have been admirable. With renewable energy being at par with fossil fuel energy production, we are just allowing economics to help progress us to a healthier energy production landscape. Subsidizing oil and gas endangers this momentum.

traffic sign that reads, "End Climate Injustice"

Inhabitat: What do you think will be the biggest challenges for carbon accountability as the economy opens?

Seeman: Fossil fuel subsidies create enormous challenges. We are digging up Earth’s natural carbon sinks and disturbing the natural balance. We are creating dangerous feedback loops that will soon be, if they are not already, out of our control.

Inhabitat: What are some of the most important long-term solutions to climate change in your opinion?

Seeman: We need to create massive R&D subsidies to create the next generation of renewable and clean technological advancements. We need to work on efficiency ratings as well as our power sources. We need to create renewable energy generators that are more effective using less harmful and invasive resources.

Inhabitat: Lastly, can you tell us about your nonprofit, Forest Founders?

Seeman: The core values of Forest Founders are innovation, education and empowerment. We want to create unique solutions to allow people to become carbon accountable while teaching them the importance of what the term means. We empower our members through education to help make informed decisions and impart the importance of taking a stand. This could be on a community level or country-wide level. We provide the resources that can help our members feel like they can make an important difference in this overwhelming problem.

+ Forest Founders

Images via Patrick Hendry, David Vig and Jon Tyson