The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Bringing Down Emissions, but Not for Long

As industries slow and people fly less, emissions are falling. But unless we get serious about restructuring our society, they’ll bounce right back.

If you’re reading this at home—isolated because your company has mandated that everyone work remotely, lest you all spread the novel coronavirus—know that your loneliness may be good for the planet: Emissions are currently plummeting worldwide. In China alone, the economic slowdown has kept 200 megatons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, according to one analysis from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, a stunning 25 percent reduction in the country’s emissions. Industries wither as workers stay home, lightening the load on the electrical grid. Internationally, people are avoiding flying—big time.

A pessimistic optimist would say: Well, damn, this is how we save the world from climate changeHobble capitalism, and the problem basically fixes itself. But a climate scientist would say: Sorry. If other global crises, like financial bubbles, are any indication, this is but a temporary dip in emissions. In fact, to make up for lost money, nations like China will roar back with capitalistic mania. Modern economies halt for no disease—at least not in the long term.

 “When the Chinese economy does recover, they are likely to see an increase in emissions in the short term to sort of make up for lost time, in terms of production,” says Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist and the director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, which advocates for climate action. Researchers quantify these emissions by looking at factors like how much coal China reports using in its power plants, and by snooping with satellites on nitrous oxide emissions, a proxy for industrial activity. (Looking at carbon dioxide isn’t particularly useful because that gas mixes more quickly with the atmosphere, muddying the signal.)
 For precedent for this kind of economic bounce-back, look no further than the 2008 financial crash in the US. It caused a 3 percent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions, but those emissions went right back to normal over the next few years as the economy recovered. Indeed, much to the chagrin of climate scientists, global emissions continue to grow year over year. “Broadly speaking, the only real times we’ve seen large emission reductions globally in the past few decades is during major recessions,” says Hausfather. “But even then, the effects are often smaller than you think. It generally doesn’t lead to any sort of systematic change.”

That’s due in large part to the cheapness and abundance of fossil fuels. To go green, it helps to have a government in place that uses subsidies to encourage the adoption of renewables, rather than continuing with business as usual. “This is not not not the way we want to lower emissions, is having a global pandemic, or teetering on the edge of the next Great Depression,” says Jonathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdown, an climate change advocacy group. “But history has shown us that sometimes after an economic shock, a reorganization of the economy follows.”

 After the 2008 crash, for example, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which pumped $30 billion into green energy research and projects. That’s a less likely scenario under President Trump, who once claimed in a tweet that China created climate change to make US manufacturing “non-competitive.” In an ideal world, advocates like Hausfather argue, we as a society would pump mountains of money into projects like high-speed rail and retrofitting the energy grid to store renewables like solar power. That’s good for all of civilization, and particularly for the workers who make it possible—a stimulus that both juices the economy and protects the environment. One of the core components of the Green New Deal, a resolution proposed in both houses of Congress in 2019, is guaranteed high-paying jobs in green energy sectors. (The resolution was shot down in the Senate, but the House tasked a committee with considering the climate crisis.)

There is, of course, the historical precedent of the original New Deal, which FDR used to put Americans back to work during the Great Depression. Workers busied themselves building schools, roads and other infrastructure—though in this case, some of the work was a detriment to the environment. The Tennessee Valley Authority, for instance, scarred the landscape with dams, which chop river ecosystems into pieces. This time around, advocates say, the coronavirus crisis should be used as an opportunity to prepare the US for a post-oil world.

With economic shocks, large-scale human behavior tends to take over, regardless of government intervention. After the oil shortages of the early 1970s, for instance, Americans began demanding more fuel-efficient cars, and manufacturers delivered. Perhaps with this crisis, more companies will realize that Janet from accounting doesn’t necessarily need to be in accounting to get her job done. More telework means less commuting, and less emissions.

Or at least that’s what we might assume happens. “It would be reassuring to know that telework reduces emissions,” says UC Berkeley engineer Arpad Horvath, who has studied the environmental impacts of telework. “But we don’t have statistically significant data to prove that it does. In fact, telework may induce undesirable scenarios.” You have to heat or cool and electrify your home office, for example, while your main office might also still be humming along without you.

Still, in the US, transportation accounts for 29 percent of overall emissions. Commuting contributes so much to this figure that scientists with Northern Arizona University’s Hestia Project can take a city like Los Angeles, with its famously hellish drive time, and observe how emissions surge and ebb throughout the day. They follow data like traffic flow and building energy usage to show that emissions spew out of commercial zones during working hours, then wane as people head home, when residential zones begin emitting more. The researchers found that just 10 percent of the city’s road surface was responsible for 60 percent of its emissions.

Telework will be increasingly essential for interconnected economies in a world that’s more prone to chaos, both economically and climatically. “We’re not going to have fewer shocks to the global economy. We’re probably going to have more,” says Foley. “As we become more interconnected, what happens in wildlife markets in China can suddenly trigger an economic crisis across the planet. That’s new in human history.” So are the increasingly common and severe weather events that shake economies, like Australia’s supercharged wildfires, or the ones in California that cast enormous smoke clouds over the San Francisco Bay Area, or brutal droughts the world over.

“We’re going to see more and more shifts in global weather patterns, probably more extreme events, things that are going to be more and more disruptive,” Foley adds. “Kind of like a virus, in a different sense.”

In a perverse way, when these viruses hit, we get a glimpse of a better world, one that’s not choking on greenhouse gases. “Ironically, it may well end up being that because air pollution is such a public health hazard in China, the economic slowdown might actually save more lives than the coronavirus kills,” says Hausfather. No one can’t say for sure yet if that’s the case—after all, we’re still only a few months into this slowdown and it’ll take some time to fully know the knock-on health effects of changes in air quality. But, he adds, “it’s not outside of the realm of possibility.”