Comprehending the enormity of climate change is about as mind-bending as understanding the ultimate effect novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) will have on America and the world.
But a free, interactive tool made by artificial intelligence start-up HyperGiant helps put both global crises and their relationship to each other in perspective.
The "ACES: A post Covid Emissions Simulator" allows you to adjust pandemic-induced behaviors like the percentage of Americans who are working from home and the reduced amount of air travel to calculate how much carbon dioxide would be eliminated from the atmosphere if those changes were to be made permanent.
For instance, if 30% of the workforce is working from home, air traffic is reduced by 50% and people eat 15% less meat, according to the tool that eliminates 18 billion tons of carbon dioxide, which is 38% of the way towards the changes dictated by the Paris climate accord. (The United States signed the international environmental agreement in 2015 and pledged to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by about a quarter by 2030 from 2005 levels. In 2019, the U.S. officially withdrew from the commission.)
The tool also allows users to activate new technologies — like carbon capture, renewable power generation and revolutionary land management and agriculture strategies — to see what it would take to reach the emissions reductions necessary for carbon neutrality (where the net total carbon emissions equal zero, either through reducing your carbon emissions to zero or supporting enough carbon offset programs that your offsets to compensate for your emissions).
For example, if 30% of the workforce is working from home, air traffic is reduced by 50% and people eat 15% less meat (as established in the first portion of the interactive tool above), and then you also add the option of making all vehicles in the U.S. electric, that would eliminate 33 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2050, according to the simulator. (While that satisfies the Paris Agreement, it is not enough to "reach carbon neutrality and avoid the worst effects of climate change," the simulator says.)
"One of the most difficult things about understanding climate change is understanding the size of the actual climate problem relative to the size of the potential solutions. If I tell you that we will not emit billions of tons of CO2 as a result of Covid-19, that sounds like a lot unless you know how to compare it to the size of the greenhouse gas crisis," HyperGiant climate advisor Noam Bar-Zemer tells CNBC Make It. "This tool makes it easier for people to compare and understand the impact of proposed solutions."
Austin, Texas-headquartered HyperGiant, which was founded in 2018 and has more than 230 employees, works with companies in industries from space to healthcare to problem-solve and boost efficiency via artificial intelligence solutions. The company makes "mid-eight figures" in revenue, CEO Ben Lamm tells CNBC Make It.
The tool, which HyperGiant says does not make the company any money, was built with emissions data from multiple sources including the Environmental Information Administration (EIA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to a written statement from the company. (Of the tool, the EPA told CNBC Make It: "It's too early to draw conclusions or offer a reaction, and more analysis is needed." Also, the EPA pointed to the tool airnow.gov, where people can see air quality information and forecasts. The EIA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
"We will continue to improve on and iterate the model and hope that in the future it can be even more useful to governments and policymakers as they work to think about, visualize and understand the scope of climate change," Lamm tells CNBC Make It.
Seeing how much global, population-level change it will take to steer the climate crisis away from disaster is also intended to be a wake up call, says Lamm.
"We wanted people to understand and be able to visualize how their actions impact our cumulative emissions cloud. I think we talk a lot about individual action, which is important, but we also really need to push people to lobby for collective action and governance if we are going to change things long-term," Lamm tells CNBC Make It.
The tool "nicely illustrates the scale of the emissions problem and the suite of changes needed to address it. There is no silver bullet to climate change," Rob Jackson, Earth System Science professor at Stanford University and the chair of the Global Carbon Project, tells CNBC Make It. It could be more user friendly, though, he says. "The graphic is complicated and could be more accessible to a diverse audience outside of science."
In addition to making climate change numbers more accessible, another goal of the tool is to illustrate that while behavioral changes from the pandemic have had a positive impact on climate change, the emissions crisis is far from over.
"We saw a lot of news going around that wasn't accurate about climate change and we wanted to make sure people understood that quarantine didn't actually stop or augment the long term dangers associated with the climate crisis," Lamm tells CNBC Make It.
People were seeing reports and satellite images of some kinds of emissions vanishing over big cities as manufacturing and transportation closed down, "and they were thinking that greenhouse gasses were evaporating too," says Bar-Zemer. "'The planet was getting better as the economy slowed down' went the narrative. In truth this is not what was happening."
The pandemic lockdown did cause a reduction in the emission of certain gasses that dissipate from the atmosphere quickly, according to Bar-Zemer. But there was not a reduction in carbon dioxide, a damaging greenhouse gas which "can linger in the atmosphere for centuries," he says. "It was not disappearing with the emissions slow down. It was simply hanging out, trapping heat as it always has. And when we start the economy back up, we will be nearly right back where we started."