It’s hard to imagine a world without COVID-19.
Coronavirus is transforming the way we live, work and travel.
What was unthinkable months ago is now commonplace: international borders closing, sporting fixtures postponed, planes grounded, mass gatherings cancelled.
There’s no doubt that the pace of the Coronavirus outbreak is deeply unsettling.
The pandemic started at a wet market in China but is having a huge social and economic impact in over 120 countries.
Interestingly, it’s having an environmental impact, too.
COVID-19 and Global Carbon Reductions
The virus is causing a slow-down in global greenhouse gas emissions. According to American Scientific, China (the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions) is emitting 25% less carbon than normal.
According to global flight tracker Flight Radar, in one three-week period the number of planes flying in China dropped from around 15,000 per day to 2,000.
The Washington Post reports that in China there’s been a 40% decrease in ‘concentrations of nitrogen oxide’ a pollutant that’s released into the air when fossil fuels burn caused by car fumes and factories.
It’s a similar story in Italy, where the north of the country has been in ‘lock-down’ since March 8th. Nitrogen oxide emissions have fallen sharply as people are forced to remain indoors. Flights to Italy from the UK and other countries have also been cancelled.
In February, global air traffic dropped by 4.3% and tens of thousands of flights were cancelled. The aviation industry is hugely damaging to the environment. In fact, air travel contributed 900 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2018 and that number is expected to triple by 2050.
If you’re having trouble imaging what 900 million metric tonnes of CO2 looks like, then consider this: airlines flew 4.3 billion passengers in 2018.
With so many flights now cancelled for at least the next few weeks, it’s likely we’ll see a noticeable drop in carbon emissions until cases of Coronavirus start falling.
Coronavirus and its Effect on the UK’s Carbon Emissions
It’s difficult to predict what impact the Coronavirus outbreak will have on the UK’s carbon emissions. The UK Government is currently adopting ‘relatively modest control measures’ compared to other countries, according to the BBC.
Certainly, more people are expected to work remotely during the crisis.
If employees who normally drive to work start working from home, we should expect to see a reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions which is better for the planet. This could lead to an improvement in air quality, especially in large urban areas.
Fewer people traveling to events, festivals, exhibitions and sporting fixtures will have a similar effect and mean fewer carbon emissions.
School closures are possible in the coming months and that will mean far fewer daily car journeys, too. The cumulative effects shouldn’t be underestimated. Choosing to drive a vehicle from point A to B always comes at an environmental cost even when A and B are only a couple of miles apart.
Supermarkets are responding to increased demand for home-delivered shopping which suggests more people are choosing to have their items delivered to the door rather than driving to the shops themselves. One vehicle taking care of multiple shopping trips does mean fewer emissions and demand for these services is likely to increase as infection rates in the UK rise and more people self-isolate.
On March 14th, Jet2 announced it was cancelling all flights to Spain for two weeks. On the same day, US President Donald Trump, extended the European travel ban to the UK and Ireland.
Fewer UK airlines flying in UK and international airspace will reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere as we’ve seen happening in China.
Will Coronavirus Benefit the Planet?
What’s absolutely awful and devastating for human beings could be great for the planet, then?
Whenever a shockwave goes through the global community there’s a corresponding drop in pollution levels: the Spanish flu outbreak, the Great Depression, World War Two, OPEC embargoes, volcanic eruptions, and the 2008 market crash, have all seen lower emissions.
But reductions are never permanent.
Once the catastrophe or crash or pandemic has stopped or been stabilised, the world continues as normal and that includes a return to regular pollution levels.
That’s what’s going to happen here, too.
China has been the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases since 2005. Once Coronavirus is under control, it’ll be business as usual. Airlines will take time to recover, but planes will be back in the sky, schedules will be expanded and the aviation industry will continue to be one of the biggest threats to global environmental targets.
The reduction in carbon emissions during the COVID-19 outbreak isn’t going to be permanent.
Climate change scientists, activists and environmentalists realize that the kind of change needed to prevent global catastrophe has to be more than just a blip.
Many are worried, too, that the pandemic could be the excuse for some companies and governments to put green issues aside in favour of economic recovery.
Speaking to the Independent, Joanna Lewis, an expert on China’s energy policy said, “Once people go back to work and factories restart, they may try to make up for lost time. This could result in a surge in emissions.”
How the Coronavirus could actually increase some carbon emissions in the UK
A switch in working and shopping patterns isn’t always a good thing, either.
Remote-working isn’t always eco-friendly. If colleagues who normally work together start working from their own homes, then collectively that energy usage could be greater than if they’d all traveled and worked at the office. The combined electricity and heating usage could be harder to offset against a reduction in petrol.
American Scientific points out, too, that home delivered shopping isn’t always the eco-friendly option. It all depends on the mode of transport the consumer usually takes to visit the supermarket. It would also depend on how far away from the home a distribution or picking centre is. We also know that the type of food purchased and its corresponding carbon footprint can actually make even locally produced food more carbon intensive.
Will Coronavirus Have Any Impact on Carbon Emissions?
It’s not all bad news. The pandemic has shown how quickly people can adapt to new living, working and social conditions. Circumstances are hardly ideal especially in areas with a lot of cases of Coronavirus, but people are changing long-standing practices in order to fight back against the illness.
Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben told the Guardian:
“It’s worth noting how nimbly millions of people seem to have learned new patterns.”
Equally, Michael Lazarus the US director of the Swedish Climate Institute told Inside Climate News “if there's a sense of social cooperation that emerges from this in response to a threat, that could be a very good sign for communities and leaders to come together”.