There is NOTHING good about COVID-19. Who could argue with that statement? Yet, there have been some environmental benefits resulting from the “pause” of modern life, in particular, cleaner air in some of the world’s most densely populated regions and cities.
While the infection and sadly death rates soared over the past 2-plus months, the world has witnessed and enjoyed an unprecedented reduction in greenhouse gases. Governments around the globe closed modern transportation systems and borders, and confined residents to their homes. A significant by-product has been the reduction of vehicles on the road, lower industrial output, and thus lower burning of fossil fuels. Many of us have seen the dramatic pictures and satellite photos of cities that as recently as January were choked in smog, and now look remarkedly cleaner, such as London, Los Angeles, New York, Mumbai, Paris and Beijing. According to a new study just published in Nature Climate Change, based on compiled statistics, government policies and forced confinements yielded a decrease in CO2 emissions by –17% (–11 to –25% for ±1σ) by early April 2020 compared with the mean 2019 levels, just under half of which emanated from changes in surface transport systems. Le Quéré, C., Jackson, R.B., Jones, M.W. et al. Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nat. Clim. Chang. (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0797-x. The report goes on to state that at peak levels, emissions in individual countries decreased by –26% on average.
Of course, these are likely temporary events. Human behavior is such that people will likely return to their old ways and ignore the serene nature of city life, quiet streets, safer streets and cleaner air. Yet, with action driven by government and city planners, we have seen how rapidly life can be transformed for the public good, and conversely how bad things could be and in fact were. The impact on 2020 annual emissions depends on the duration of the confinement, according to the article, with a low estimate of –4% (–2 to –7%) if pre-pandemic conditions return by mid-June, and a high estimate of –7% (–3 to –13%) if some restrictions remain worldwide until the end of 2020.
While the decline in emissions during the pandemic may have been unprecedented, it was relatively small when it comes to combating global warming, according to a recent article in The Washington Post. The peak 17 percent decline in global emissions — which occurred in early April — meant nations continued to generate more than 80 percent of carbon pollution. Despite the pandemic slowdown, power plants continued to burn fuel to generate electricity, heat buildings, and maintain our modern infrastructure. Researchers say the experience demonstrates how broad structural changes to the energy systems are critical if the world is to slash emissions in a meaningful, sustainable way.
“We can see now that behavior change alone is not going to do it,” said Corinne Le Quéré, lead author of the study and director of Britain’s Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, quoted by The Washington Post.
No doubt that to reach sustained and meaningful reductions in CO2 output we will need a continued all-hands approach to manage the future and future expectations. Some world leaders such as the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson have committed to muscle a shift toward greener economies in the wake of the pandemic. Last week, Johnson said his country’s push to slash its emissions remains “undiminished” by COVID-19 and the economic turmoil it has caused. He pointed to airlines in Parliament last week, saying the sector must limit its carbon emissions even when normal flights resume.
Yet government alone will not drive the ultimate climate cure. Industry and the commercial sectors must see the economic benefits of cleaner environment and be incentivized to get there. That said, as with many things such as social distancing to reduce the spread of the virus, it is human behavior that is the engine that drives the train, or in this case, the aged-old two-wheeled technology, the bicycle.
In an article just published in The New York Times, one of the rare sought-after commodities during the pandemic, like baking yeast and flour, is the bicycle. According to The New York Times, in March, nationwide sales of bicycles, equipment and repair services nearly doubled compared with the same period last year, per the N.P.D. Group, a market research company. Sales of commuter and fitness bikes in the same month increased 66 percent, leisure bikes jumped 121 percent, children’s bikes went up 59 percent and electric bikes rose 85 percent. The country and many urban centers are facing a severe shortage of bikes, and just as people are lining up at food stores, they are lining up at bike shops. Many components come from China or other overseas locations, such as tubes, wheels, tires and so forth. But it is the demand by the consumer that is fueling this drive. According to one bike representative, local sales have soared by more than 600 percent this year compared with the same period in 2019.
We remain a nation of cars and infrastructure designed for cars. Yet, the pandemic is fueling a review by city planners to come up with a more European approach to making more roads bike-friendly, and preparing for the return of cars to the city scape. Time will tell how this all shakes out, but the ingredients are in the mix for perhaps a different landscape then returning to the pre-pandemic woes.
Government, industry, economic incentives and people action post-crisis will likely influence the global CO2 emissions and maybe, set up the future for a cleaner, brighter and hopefully virus-free world. We owe it to all those who have suffered to make some good out of a very difficult past few months.