Coronavirus: Good News for Air Quality? Yes—and No.

Candice Gaukel Andrews May 19, 2020 0
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Has the coronavirus pandemic opened the window for the nations of the world to finally fully adopt clean energy technologies?

Almost every aspect of life has changed dramatically since the coronavirus pandemic began months ago. Today, we are still social distancing from family and friends; learning via remote, online platforms; and attending conferences, music performances and other public events virtually.

It isn’t what we wanted, and it certainly hasn’t been fun. But there is, at least, one silver lining to the spread of COVID-19: stringent measures to curb the pandemic coincide with a significant improvement in air quality in many cities across the globe. In Europe, the effects are even visible from space.

In fact, a massive drop in CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions has placed the world seven years ahead of schedule in efforts to hold global warming to two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100, according to a report by Platts Analytics. This would be the first drop in carbon emissions since 2008, when a 1.4 percent reduction followed the financial crisis.

Unfortunately, this good news could be only temporary.

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COVID-19 has resulted in a decreasing demand for coal and oil worldwide. CO2 emissions are expected to drop by 5.5 percent.

A dramatic drop in worldwide CO2 emissions

The Platts Analytics report states that as a result of the diminishing demand for coal and oil due to the global pandemic, CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion are expected to drop by 5.5 percent. It goes on to say that while this “decline pales in comparison to the double-digit plunges during the Great Depression (around 25 percent) and at the end of World War II (around 20 percent), the overall reduction in CO2 emissions from coronavirus in absolute terms is projected to be by far the largest in human history.”

As the early epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak and the first country to take substantive measures to contain it, China is where the virus’s impact on carbon dioxide emissions first became visible. According to calculations published by the climate science and policy website CarbonBrief, emissions plunged 25 percent in the first four weeks following Chinese New Year in late January 2020 as coal consumption and industrial activities, such as cement making and oil refining, failed to rebound after the holiday slowdown. That deceleration caused the world’s largest emitter to avoid 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide air pollution—more than half the annual emissions from the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, in the European Union (EU), declining power demands and depressed manufacturing could cause CO2 emissions to fall by nearly 400 million metric tons this year, a figure that represents about 9 percent of the EU’s cumulative 2020 emissions target. And while data for the United States remains limited, experts expect that the coronavirus’s impacts will mirror those of China and the EU.

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If people resume driving as they did before the global pandemic, the crisis will have a negligible impact on climate change effects.

On a local scale, however, the epidemic’s climate change impacts are more complex—they’re likely to hinge on a wide variety of modifications that people make in carrying out their daily lives, from how often they leave their homes to how they travel around their cities to how they do their shopping.

A complex catch in local greenhouse gas output

If people are spending more time in their homes, it stands to reason that they could be using more energy there. For instance, if your home is cold and you have to heat it more than you would if you had gone out to work, that’s going to offset any savings from not driving your vehicle, on average. On the other hand, if it’s a warm, beautiful day, you wouldn’t be using much more energy than if you were at work. There’s also the possibility that people are spending more time using appliances or watching television if they’re cooped up in their houses, resulting in an overall higher energy use.

Too, reports have suggested a recent spike in online shopping and home deliveries, especially for groceries. Comparing the carbon footprint of online shopping versus making purchases in a store is often tricky. According to at least one recent study, it may largely depend on whether the deliveries come from a store in the community or are shipped in from somewhere else, and what means of transport the shopper would ordinarily use to pick up the goods in person.

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The business-as-usual approach of burning fossil fuels for energy has led to today’s unprecedented CO2 release rate: the highest the Earth has seen over the past 66 million years.

Because transportation—by airplanes, cars, ships, trains and trucks—is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, the short-term effect on the nation’s carbon footprint could be significant, only to rise again as businesses and schools open their doors and we travel afar once more.

A delicate distinction between CO2 concentrations and CO2 emissions

CO2 is a long-lived gas. But CO2 emissions and CO2 concentrations are not the same thing. An annual drop in emissions, even one of historic proportions, is unlikely to dramatically change the concentrations of carbon dioxide swirling around Earth’s atmosphere. An analogy is filling a bath from a tap. If the tap represents CO2 emissions, and the water level in the bath is CO2 concentrations, while we have slightly turned the tap down temporarily, water is still flowing into the bath, and so the level is still rising. To slow climate change, the tap needs to be turned off—permanently.

In the coming weeks, our planet is still on track to break another record, with CO2 concentrations peaking at around 416 to 417 parts per million, or about 33 percent higher than before the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s.

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The coronavirus could spur personal behavioral changes, such as switching out a gas-powered car for an all-electric vehicle.

A promising path for cleaner technologies

But could today’s clearer skies result in a greater push toward cleaner technologies? Could this crisis prompt long-term shifts in behavior that could truly make a difference?

Just as carbon emissions persist long enough in Earth’s upper atmosphere to act as everlasting climate change agents, avoided emissions are a permanent balm.

The trips by plane you won’t take this year won’t be made up in 2021, for the simple reason that most people who use airplanes do so regularly. A missed trip isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will be put back next year; it’s a missed trip, period. The same applies for work commutes and leisure activities.

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If our society, on short notice, can produce hundreds of thousands of face shields and ventilators within a few weeks, we should be able to construct millions of wind turbines and solar panels within a few years.

This stalling of demand for fossil fuels opens a window for clean energy technologies to grow. Strong governmental support for clean energy—through electric vehicle and renewable power tax credits, investments in low-carbon infrastructure and building efficiency, among other initiatives—could tilt economies toward a greener, more climate-friendly direction in the wake of the pandemic. And societal shifts that have occurred as a result of coronavirus lockdowns, such as holding conferences virtually and widespread telecommuting, could give the world a little extra momentum. COVID-19 is telling us that we badly need this kind of repositioning in our visioning.

If our nation—within a month—can switch to manufacturing almost 200,000 ventilators in what remains of 2020 and 100,000 protective face shields weekly, surely we can, within a few years, erect a million wind turbines, solarize millions of buildings and place all-electric vehicle charging stations throughout our cities and suburbs.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

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