COVID-19 Pandemic Responsible for 17% Drop in Global Carbon Emissions


COVID-19 has gone from being a shocking “new normal” to a pretty steady (and perhaps steadily depressing) way of life. Were you looking for a bright side in all those days and months spent locked inside your home with your nearest and dearest? Even if you’re ready to tear your housemates’ hair out, there actually is a positive side to it all—besides that whole “not spreading a potentially deadly virus” thing, of course.

You have to be willing to look at the bigger picture, but one of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is the fact that the shelter-in-place orders are responsible for a staggering 17% drop in global carbon emissions. It makes sense, of course: we’re mostly working from home at this point, and ground transport has been decimated. As far as air transport, we’re taking far, far fewer flights—about 96% fewer, in fact.

Yes, this is good fodder for the “nature is healing” memes, but it’s actually a pretty staggering look at how deeply humanity’s everyday activities affect the planet. Our global culture is incredible in that experiencing another way of life is just a plane ride away—but look at what happens when we have to drastically cut down on everything.

According to experts, this drop in emissions isn’t a sustainable way of life, but it should be a wake-up call about how much of an effect our everyday lives have on the environment.

Prof Corinne Le Quéré of the University of East Anglia says that this drop won’t last, unless we implement drastic changes in our infrastructure. In other words, the pandemic is forcing us all to stay at home for now, but unless our countries, states and cities can make it possible for us all to use public transportation, bike or walk to work, these carbon emissions are going to spike once more.

Obviously, the answer is to decrease our carbon footprints, both individually and on the whole. But how can we make that happen?

Reducing your individual carbon footprint

Reduce, reuse, recycle—we all know this familiar refrain, but you can add “refuse” to this as well. When you’re supporting small businesses during the pandemic, refuse single-use plastics and other paper products whenever possible. Sometimes that means bringing your own flatware to the socially-distanced picnic, and sometimes it means other ways of sacrificing convenience for the greater good—but it’s 2020, so we’re all used to this by now.

Keep minimizing your commute, too. Whether you create a carpool for the next version of “the new normal” or you advocate for working remotely beyond the pandemic, keeping cars off the road is a good thing. You can always turn to public transportation, electric bikes and other environmentally-friendly ways of commuting. And if they’re not cost effective or efficient, consider lobbying for change with your local government.

Finally, conserve your utilities as much as possible, including water and food. Many of the resources we rely on for daily life stem from finite resources. Making an effort to eat, drink, bathe and otherwise live sustainably helps reduce your carbon footprint. The more of us who make an effort, the more likely we won’t be the sole cause of a mass extinction or other catastrophic global event.

Taking the lessons of COVID-19 and creating change

What can we learn from COVID-19 and this drop in global carbon emissions? For one thing, we can’t just make a blanket “stay home more often” statement—but it’s tempting, given how some urban areas are experiencing a much more peaceful and clean period. The canals of Venice are famously running clear for the first time in centuries, and that’s one of the more striking examples. Cities everywhere (including Los Angeles, notorious for its smog) are seeing less air pollution now that people are limited to their individual areas.

This actually isn’t unique to this pandemic, either—scientists, historians and other academic experts found that the Black Death in the middle ages also contributed to a drastic drop in carbon emissions. Similarly, they predict that our carbon emissions will probably bounce back—unless this pandemic lasts a particularly long time. In that case, economic depression will subdue the desire and ability to travel, among other sources of carbon emission.

If this all sounds depressing—and it is—remember that nothing is final yet. This could and should be our wake-up call to see that we can actually make lasting change—the kind that’s good for our planet.

Abhishek Chauhan

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