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Has the Coronavirus Helped the Environment?

Ben Parker

MERS Coronavirus Particles–Colorized transmission electron micrograph showing particles of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus that emerged in 2012

Credit The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Article Highlights

COVID-19, the global pandemic, has had broad health, economic, political, psychological, and environmental effects. Many local and national governments urging, or enforcing stay at home orders have left many confined to their homes. With this, countless companies large and small have sent employees home. Many people have lost their jobs, or are now required to do their jobs over the internet. With all of these people at home, airlines have reduced their flight schedules up to as much as 90%. Similarly no one is commuting to work anymore. The reduction in air travel, and commuter traffic, is what many advocates for climate change have been vying for long before COVID-19 existed. But the results of everything being shut down are not as optimistic as one would hope.


Has the Coronavirus Helped the Environment?

In the short term, yes, the coronavirus has led to a 5% reduction of carbon emissions globally (over the past few months). The long-term effects are yet to be realized. 


The reduction does not represent the whole year because “a coronavirus impact equivalent to 5.5% of global emissions will not automatically equate to a 5.5% reduction in 2020. This is because, where possible, the country and sector impact estimates are made relative to ‘what would have happened without the crisis’.” (Simon Lewis, Carbon Brief)


Reduced Travel


Traveling makes up for about 25% of all the global Carbon emissions, so with everyone sheltering-in-place you can see where most of the reduction comes from. The issue with that is a lot of people are just going to go back to work/normal life when this is over, and that reduction will be no more. Same is to be said with airlines. Airlines are actually some of the worst polluters. In New York carbon dioxide was down 5% due to decrease in travel. In China the reduction was as much as 25%.

Reduced Oil Consumption


Nearly 10% of global oil consumption has been wiped out by the coronavirus. This has led to some larger metropolitan areas having significantly improved air quality. You may have seen some of the pictures of Los Angeles without smog, or Beijing with clear skies. To many, clear skies have indicated a significant environmental improvement. That may be a false positive. 

The 1950s historical photograph of an extreme air pollution event at Salt Lake City, Utah

Credit Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Precaution during the Spanish Influenza Epidemic would not permit anyone to ride on the street cars without wearing a mask, Seattle, Washington (ca.1918). Similar to the Coronavirus global pandemic, the Spanish Influenza caused the economy and industry to slow and had subsequent effects on the environment.

Credit Library of Congress

The issue with that is a lot of people are just going to go back to work/normal life when this is over, and [the emissions] reduction will be no more.

The Negative Effects of the Coronavirus on the Environment


Food production waste has greatly increased as supply chains have not been able to adjust to the lowered demand. This has caused literal tons of food to go to waste. All this organic waste is beginning to rot and emit methane, another greenhouse gas, into the environment. 


A return to plastics due to health concerns has spiked production of single use plastics around the globe. Grocery stores are reverting from reusable paper bags to single-use plastic bags. Many are using gloves, and other single-use products. Discarded masks and gloves are already becoming a huge issue as you can read in this CNN article.


Many environmental protection workers have been forced to work from home as well, putting many protected species and lands at risk. There has been a spike in illegal deforestation, fishing, and wildlife hunting. 


Pro environment companies are not immune pandemics. Companies working on renewable energy, sustainability technology, and others have had to significantly reduce their efforts, furlough or lay-off their employees. 


COVID-19 poses an incredibly serious health risk to the world at large. Because of this, it has become the focal point of nearly everything. The public eye has shifted from saving the environment, to surviving a pandemic.


The Effects of Past Global Crises on the Environment


Historically pandemics, epidemics, and other crises have also led to temporary reductions of emissions. In some regard we can use these as a reference for what could happen post COVID-19.


The 2008 financial crisis bankrupted a lot of companies and industry really halted. Industry makes up a significant portion of carbon emissions, similar to transportation. The emissions reduction for the year 2008 was 1.3% from industry halting.


Stimulate the Economy, Stimulate Emissions


After a national/international crisis, governments attempt to stimulate their economies with incentives to get companies moving again. This is a great way to help the economy and create new jobs or restore old ones. Stimulating industry and production means you’re also stimulating emissions. 


This is what happened after 2008 when the Chinese government poured massive amounts of money back into the economy in its stimulus package. The government put $475 billion dollars towards infrastructure development. These projects all required tons and tons of iron, steel, and cement. The energy consumption increased by 113 million tons of coal that following year, “equivalent to 260 million tons of carbon emissions”. 


The emissions reductions in the year ‘08 (from the crisis) were 1.3%. The following year they not only returned to normal but drastically increased emissions.

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The big takeaway here is that with virtually the whole world shut down we still haven’t hit our emissions goals to save the planet.

Conclusions


It can be expected that what has happened in past pandemics, will happen again. The reduction in emissions will be erased by everyone returning to work, and returning to the norm. So any positive effects may be erased. 


To save the planet from future catastrophe, the goal set by the UN Environment Program, and the recommended reduction by many experts, is a 7% reduction of emissions per year. The reduction so far (as of April 2020) during the coronavirus pandemic has been 5.5%. The big takeaway here is that with virtually the whole world shut down we still can’t hit our emissions goals to save the planet. 


As Glen Peters puts it, “Even if there is a slight decrease in global fossil CO₂ emissions in 2020, the atmospheric concentration of CO₂ will continue to rise. The atmosphere is like a (leaky) bathtub, unless you turn the tap off, the bath will keep filling up with CO₂”

So what does that mean? Are we going to die? No, we’re not gonna die… yet. But it does mean that we all need to get more serious about energy consumption. We’ve got to turn off the tap.


Focus on what you can do to reduce your footprint now at home. But more importantly, what can you do when you return to normal? 


One step could be considering an electric car. Here are 45 reasons you should consider one

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