The coronavirus has evidently affected industries, transport networks and businesses, and people have been mandated to stay in their homes and practice social distancing. One of the unintended consequences of these measures is perhaps the reduction in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions across the world, which has contributed to a cleaner environment and global atmosphere. The question that arises is whether or not this change is merely temporary or if it is something that could potentially lead to long-term change.
Compared with this time last year, levels of pollution in New York have reduced by nearly 50% because of measures to contain the virus. In China, emissions fell 25% at the start of the year and coal use fell by 40% at China's six largest power plants since the last quarter of 2019. Air quality too has improved in China and in other countries on the European continent such as Italy, Spain and the UK.
Since this is an unnatural way of bringing about a sustainable economy and cleaner environment, there are concerns regarding how lasting this reduction in emissions will be once life returns to normal.Transport, which constitutes 23% of global carbon emissions, has seen a decline in emissions, as people have had to restrict their movement and travel as a result of COVID. There is something to be said about the potential power of creating habits in a moment of change that could have lasting, positive effects. According to a BBC article, people alter their behavior in times of change to adapt to a new reality, and this could often lead to the creation of a permanent habit. A 2018 study led by Corinne Moser at Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland found that when people were unable to drive and were given free e-bike access instead, they drove much less when they eventually got their car back.
One factor that influences whether or not these emissions bounce back is how long the coronavirus pandemic lasts.
The OECD predicts that the global economy will still grow in 2020, albeit growth predictions have fallen by half because of coronavirus. But even with this recovery, researchers such as Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate and Environment Research in Oslo have noted that overall 2020 may still see a drop in global emissions of 0.3% with an opportunity for less rebound if efforts to stimulate the economy are focused towards sectors such as clean energy.
World leaders have a good opportunity to act on improving the environment and human life by reducing air pollution, carbon emissions and the impact of future pandemics. This could be a time to rethink how humans approach their environment, but it does require a conscious, collective effort. Even during this pandemic, we have seen the power of communal action, and if we apply the same approach to climate change, it could produce profound change.