While the global pandemic has taken devastating health and economic tolls around the world, some have noted one positive side effect: a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions and air pollution. It remains to be seen how long-lasting these environmental benefits will be, or whether COVID-19 might precipitate new challenges for climate change mitigation.
Recent declines in travel and economic activity have caused a sharp fall in some global warming effects. In Barcelona, average levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant largely emitted by cars and other vehicles, decreased by 55% in mid-March versus the same time one year before, according to the European Environment Agency.
The precipitous drop in emissions has also provided researchers around the world extra time to understand global warming and paths to decarbonization. For example, Scientific American reports that climate scientists have been able to study the impact of atmospheric aerosols, small particles produced by activities like burning fossil fuels or spraying fertilizer. While atmospheric aerosols generally have a cooling effect on the climate, the extent to which they can offset warming caused by greenhouse gases has been unclear. Now, the current drop in aerosol emissions offers scientists the chance to better understand their climate change mitigation effects.
There is also the possibility that certain COVID-19–related behavior changes, such as the shift to working from home, will last even after the crisis is over. Since commuting to and from work is a significant contributor to global emissions, the remote work trend could have a substantial positive effect on climate change. Nearly 37% of jobs can be accomplished remotely, according to recent University of Chicago research.
Policy changes could also bring environmental benefits. For example, to address the massive unemployment caused by business interruptions in Europe, an alliance of 180 politicians, business leaders, and others have called for the European Union to boost green investment to increase employment and growth. Climate and social policy experts have proposed a similar green recovery in the US.
Of course, these promising signals are the product of a global crisis harming millions of people, not a sustainable strategy for climate change mitigation. At the same time, new environmental challenges will likely arise out of the pandemic. Although emissions declined earlier in the pandemic, experts have already seen levels rebounding as economies return to business as usual. Even continued emissions reductions would be insufficient to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the goal set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
In fact, COVID-19–related supply chain problems could lead to greater emissions. Many exporters produced volumes too large to be handled by hamstrung cargo transportation services, leading to an increase in organic waste levels. As that material decays, levels of methane emissions—a greenhouse gas—are expected to rise sharply. Others have pointed to an increase in plastic waste from demand for products like masks and other protective gear, hand sanitizers, and delivery packaging.
Finally, there is the danger that focus on climate change could be sidelined as governments and others continue to address the pandemic’s immediate life-and-death risks.
While COVID-19 has showcased the global community’s ability to act fast in a major crisis, battling climate change will require a concerted, strategic, and substantial long-term effort.
Want to learn more about the future of climate change mitigation? Read:
- Can a Green Recovery Repair the Economy and Spur Climate Action?
- COVID-19 Exposes a Fragile Global Food System. Is Sustainable Agriculture the Solution?
- Why City-Based Climate Change Targets Are Central to Paris Agreement Goals
- 3 Technologies for a More Sustainable Future
- Investing in SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production