Updated: Sep 18
By Niva Cohen
There are many lenses through which to observe the coronavirus pandemic: it is a dangerous virus that has hospitalized millions, a disruption to the routine, a roadblock to social interaction, and a challenge for all the world’s governments to confront. Along with all of these concerns, the environmentally-conscious wonder how this “new normal” has impacted climate change. In fact, emissions have plummeted in the past couple of months; but is that enough to ensure the survival of future generations on Earth?
It is especially interesting to investigate how the climate has changed in China since the outbreak because it was the first country to be exposed to the virus and it has some of the worst pollution levels globally. NASA reported on February 28 that its satellites saw a significant drop in atmospheric nitrogen dioxide in the area surrounding Wuhan, China. With the shutdown of factories, air-travel, and public transportation, the streets nationwide appeared empty and citizens could see a blue sky, despite the density of China’s cities. It is no surprise that carbon dioxide emissions were also down 25%, thanks to reductions in travel and in coal and oil production. In only a few weeks, China slashed its harm to the planet, and all it took was a deadly, contagious, virus.
Drops in emissions in the rest of the world followed those in China as the coronavirus and its accompanying hysteria spread. In February, before the quarantine had even set in, air travel had already decreased by 4.3% globally. Flying is one of the most carbon-intensive habits, so fewer planes in the sky also means less CO2 in the atmosphere. In general, less mobility has improved air quality everywhere.
With this baseline understanding of how the coronavirus has impacted the world, one can begin to speculate on how it will impact the big picture of the climate crisis. Despite the lessened CO2 and nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere, the coronavirus has not “fixed” climate change because, according to Richard Alley, a geosciences professor at Penn State, it has not affected “the overall upward trend” in emissions. Similar drops have happened in the past, during World War II and the Great Recession, for example, but when normalcy returned, so too did environmental destruction. To shift Earth’s future toward a brighter path, a much more sustainable change is necessary.
Alley noted that no one should hope for the coronavirus to single-handedly mend the world. The only reason that the air quality has improved is because of pauses in industry, transportation, and society, which have endangered people’s incomes. For the virus to make a lasting dent in emissions, the economy would have to be in shambles, with rocketing unemployment rates and increased food shortages, the immediacy of which would replace more abstract worries about a climate crisis. Real progress on the environmental front will only come with long-term and strategic change that does not jeopardize anyone’s livelihood.
If people use the tools that the pandemic has forced them to develop, then they have a chance at slowing the progression of climate change. By paving the way for more advanced electronic communication and conferences, the coronavirus could prevent excess business travel even after it has blown over. The use of applications like Zoom and Google Hangout will not stop just because this lockdown does.
Quarantine has transformed lifestyles globally by slowing air travel, crowding online platforms, and reducing all forms of transportation. Although these changes are not in and of themselves enough to “fix” the planet, they may show people how to live more sustainably. When everything returns to normal, some habits, such as reducing air-travel when possible, might remain, but only if people let them remain. Fulfilling a green agenda is a group effort, and everyone has to be on board for it to work.
Eventually, the coronavirus will pass, just as world wars and recessions and all other catastrophes have. The question is how the global community will decide to move forward. Unless everyone comes out of quarantine recognizing how scary and threatening external forces can be -- unless everyone decides to take preventative measures -- the climate will continue to worsen, taking our quality of life along with it. People often rise from such crises revitalized and intent on avoiding future suffering. Hopefully, they will direct that determination toward creating a greener world.