COVID-19 Triggers Dip in Carbon Emissions and Pollution
Jacob Bourne posted on April 01, 2020 |
The pandemic response shows we can control emissions and tackle an even greater threat.

Similar to the way that scientists have been warning about the grave threat of climate change for decades, they’ve also been sounding the alarm about the lack of preparedness for a global pandemic. As the world continues to face the existential threat of climate change, it’s now also gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, which in turn is affecting global carbon emissions and pollution. If 2020 is met with more climate-induced wildfires, floods and cyclones, efforts to control the pandemic and its associated economic repercussions could be further impeded.

“It’s a useful thing to draw a parallel between these two kinds of crises,” said Christine Rosen, associate professor at University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business. “We evolved to respond to attacks like from a saber-toothed tiger. Here we have an attack from something that’s invisible—we understand it, but even so, some people are in denial. Climate change is an even more long-term invisible threat, and there are parallels in terms of how important it is to be proactive before you’re in the middle of devastation.”

To curb the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus—which Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch has said could infect between 40 and 70 percent of the world’s adult population—governments around the world have implemented shelter-in-place orders to varying degrees. These measures, designed to increase social distancing, have caused a sudden and pronounced decline in global economic activity. Aside from those working in industries like healthcare, droves of people have been working from home or are out of work, and are avoiding travel by plane, car or public transit, except for essential purposes. Industrial production is down, consumerism is down, and so too is the fossil fuel burning on which those activities rely.

“I’m seeing a lot of people willing to change their personal behaviors in a way that they would never have considered a month ago,” said Ben Abbott, assistant professor of Ecosystem Ecology, Brigham Young University. “There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this to solve pollution and climate change. This is a positive example of how we can do something about it. We would never want a pandemic to be the reason to make the changes that we need to make, but the magnitude of the response is really encouraging to me.”

Preliminary Data Show Emissions Drop

The full extent of the reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions and its associated forms of pollution won’t be known until the aftermath of this current health crisis. However, more localized data provide a glimpse. China, the first country to be heavily impacted by COVID-19 beginning in December 2019, experienced a 25 percent drop in carbon dioxide emissions over a month-long period according to CarbonBrief, which used data from NASA and Wind Information. Nitrogen dioxide, a form of pollution associated with fossil fuel burning, was down by 36 percent during the 2020 Chinese New Year compared to the same period in 2019. Modeling by Independent Commodity Intelligence Services shows that COVID-19 will cause a 24.4 percent drop in European power and carbon markets for 2020. European Union (EU) aviation emissions are forecasted to be reduced by 80 percent during the second quarter of 2020. 

A look at the effect of COVID-19 on coal consumption in China. (Image courtesy of CarbonBrief.)

In February, the International Energy Agency (IEA) had forecast that oil demand would increase by 825,000 barrels per day globally. However, the quick turn of events caused by COVID-19 now has the forecast showing 2020 oil demand down by 90,000 barrels per day from 2019 levels. “The coronavirus crisis is affecting a wide range of energy markets—including coal, gas and renewables—but its impact on oil markets is particularly severe because it is stopping people and goods from moving around, dealing a heavy blow to demand for transport fuels,” said Faith Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director.

While a reduction in carbon emissions is a collective goal to prevent an intensifying planetary climate change disaster, COVID-19 is also having serious and widespread social and economic consequences. One possible negative outcome of the pandemic is that it is slowing the fight against climate change. Once the pandemic is over, a business-as-usual economic paradigm may ensue accompanied by a rebound spike in carbon emissions. Although the COVID-19 situation is unprecedented, an analogy can be made to the emissions reduction that occurred during the Great Recession—only to ramp back up with a vengeance during the economic recovery that followed.

According to a study in Nature Communications, carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. decreased by 11 percent between 2007 and 2013, a change attributed more to the economic downturn than to changes in energy sources. In the subsequent growth years, global carbon emissions broke all-time records annually. The present concern of some climate researchers is that not only will emissions bounce back, but that in the interim we’re losing valuable time to fund the development of new green technologies.

Pandemic Could Spur Climate Action

“The financial disruptions are not good for the efforts to transition to clean energy,” said Rosen. “One of the problems is the price war that’s broken out between Russia and Saudi Arabia that’s driven down the price of oil, and all the fracking that has driven down the price of natural gas. Natural gas is much better for the environment than oil and coal, but this will reduce incentives for people to transition to electric cars and renewable energy systems. During this crisis, it’s hard for companies and governments to invest in clean energy development.”

Although Rosen doesn’t think that all the progress made to adopt green energy technologies will be completely eroded, she’s concerned that COVID-19 has diverted attention away from the climate change threat. “People aren’t going to be able to forget about climate change,” she said. “The climate isn’t going to heal and revert to the way it was in the 1940s. We’re going to keep struggling with this.”

Abbott views the present situation as a crossroads where governments and businesses can choose to either use economic relief funds to transition to cleaner energy systems and help solve both pollution and climate change simultaneously—or to squander the opportunity. “There’s talk of potentially relaxing environmental regulation in a misguided attempt to stimulate the economy. That would be a negative and really counterproductive measure. Whenever you have a pause in the economy, there’s a chance for things to reorganize. With this stimulus package, I’m hopeful that there will be a new round of investment in research for renewable energy that could create long-term, healthy and sustainable jobs for Americans and people around the world. It’s a positive that could come out of this crisis.”

Climate Change and Pollution Are Also Deadly

The climate struggle will continue in large part due to the nature of carbon dioxide, which can remain in the atmosphere for up to 200 years after being emitted. Prior to the industrial revolution, the Earth’s atmosphere contained about 289 ppm of carbon dioxide. Today there’s 415 ppm following a dramatic uptick in emissions during the 1950s that’s continued on an upward trajectory ever since. Despite a temporary decrease in the amount of emissions from industrial and transportation sources, the amount of carbon already added to the atmosphere will remain there for generations to come unless it’s drawn down by expansive reforestation and carbon capture technology.

Elevated levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases will continue to fuel the unprecedented wildfires and storms that the planet has experienced in recent years. Furthermore, because the planet has already warmed by at least 1.2°C above 19th-century levels, positive feedback loops such as the release of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide from Arctic permafrost now contribute to the vicious cycle independent of human activity.

People may be mistaken if they feel like a temporary drop in greenhouse gas emissions is good for the environment, Andrea Dutton, a climate scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told ABC News. When pollution is released into the air, the particulates “actually have a shielding effect” from the sun, Dutton said. “If you take that away, then it has the opposite effect,” and the planet could warm even faster, according to Dutton.

“The real big thing to focus on is cumulative emissions,” she said. “Until we address that and make the sustainable cuts we need, then we are effectively not solving the problem.”

Despite particulate pollution’s ability to dampen the amount of solar radiation hitting the Earth, forms of pollution like black carbon emitted from coal-burning plants, among other sources, can form a dark blanket over the Arctic’s snow and ice, and reduce the region’s albedo effect, fueling more warming. Pollution from gases like nitrogen dioxide is one of the leading causes of premature mortality worldwide, yet it’s not treated like the crisis it is, in part because it’s nothing new, having been around for centuries, unlike the novel coronavirus.

“In China alone, it’s estimated that 78,000 fewer people will die this year because of reduced pollution during the shutdown,” stated Abbott. “That’s more people than have died worldwide from the pandemic. The improvements in air pollution have been clearest in the areas with the largest shutdowns, including northern Italy and China, but we’ve seen improvements in Utah, California, and just about everywhere with available data.”

“This doesn’t mean that we should be taking COVID-19 less seriously. It means that we should be taking pollution more seriously,” Abbott continued. “This crisis shows that when we recognize how serious a problem it is, we can take global action to stop it. Pollution kills more than 15 million people every year. Are we willing to take drastic measures to save those lives as well?”

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