While COVID-19 has stymied industries and livelihoods, climate change continues unhindered. In some ways, COVID-19 has been beneficial for some aspects of climate change such as in lowering air pollution. Due to the pandemic, air pollution rates have dropped in places where infection rates have been highest. But is this only the calm before the storm? Are these lowered rates sustainable, or will air pollution just return to previous levels or worse once society adapts to the new normal?
In comparison, after the global financial crisis of 2008, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions around the world from fossil fuels dropped by 1.4 percent, only to rise again by 5.9 percent in 2010 as countries returned to their previous energy consuming activities with a renewed vigor. A similar increase in emissions today is possible as people start to return to their pre-pandemic activity levels.
Due to the end of lockdowns across the world, trends in emissions have already risen as people across the world have started to return to their old habits. China exemplifies what a return to activity in other countries might look like: as of May, its pollution levels have returned to pre-pandemic levels. Desperate to repair the Chinese economy, the central government has allowed the opening of new coal-fired power plants.
Additionally, the pandemic has delayed discussion on ways to combat climate change. The United Nations’ annual climate summit, set to take place in Glasgow in November 2020, has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. At this summit, the UN had planned to discuss emission reduction goals in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement, including their plan to limit planet warming to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Other climate meetings, including those planned to discuss biodiversity, have also been postponed or cancelled due to the pandemic. The European Union has debated whether to halt the Carbon Trading program and whether to continue with the Climate Bill. Such an emissions trading program would work by setting an environmental goal for emission or pollution levels.
Countries like Brazil are also at a disadvantage due to the impact of increased deforestation. Loggers are continuing to destroy the Amazon Rainforest and more land was cleared away during April 2020. The Amazon and the indigenous people who live there have been especially impacted by the coronavirus since they are disproportionately at risk due to water shortages, cramped living quarters, and inadequate hospitals.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it will not penalize states that do not follow federal reporting requirements if they cite pandemic-related reasons. This allows states to shirk their environmental responsibilities by not abiding by these reporting requirements. As a result, communities will not know what is actually in the air they are breathing under this new requirement.
President Donald Trump also announced a new line of reduced fuel efficiency standards for new vehicles that will increase fuel consumption and intensify harm caused by fossil fuels. This change is especially concerning since, due to social distancing the pandemic has discouraged the use of public transportation, thus increasing the amount of cars on the road. The new rule from the EPA and the Department of Transportation would allow automakers to avoid emission and gas mileage requirements put into place by President Barack Obama in 2012. This rule is predicted to allow the release of about 900 million more tons of CO2 since cars will be less efficient.
There is a direct relationship between COVID-19 and the environment. Due to the virus’ impact on the lungs, people breathing dirtier air are twice as likely to die from the infection, similar to the SARS epidemic of 2003. Air pollution causes more than 200,000 premature deaths in the United States annually. Thus, the health of the environment needs to be addressed not just for its own sake, but also for the sake of its citizens due to this precarious time.
Furthermore, polluters are actually profiting during the pandemic. The Federal Reserve’s $600 billion Main Street Lending program benefits gas and oil industry companies by allowing them to take advantage of the loans provided to them as a part of the program. Environmentalists have criticized this program as being a “bailout” for oil companies. The American Petroleum Institute said that gas and oil companies are taking advantage of these programs, since they are meant to help all industries deal with financial hardship and not just the largest few.
Although energy demand hit a low at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, oil production continued, leading to an overabundance of oil within the U.S. beyond their capacity, the peak capacity of which was April 21, 2020. Thus, oil tankers have had to figure out a way to fill up empty pipe-lines, railways, and oil tankers. These oil tankers have been idling off the coasts of places like Los Angeles and Long Beach. In light of reduced demand, oil companies face a dilemma over what to do with the excess oil. The overuse of tankers is an environmental detriment since they add CO2 and particulate matter to the atmosphere, leading to further air pollution. At this point, it is unclear how much of this particulate matter will pollute the air that humans breathe.
Despite potential setbacks, the pandemic may foster a shift towards solar power and other sources of clean energy. Additionally, some cities like New York, Paris, and Berlin plan to add more bike lanes on roads in order to incentivize people to bike more as opposed to driving. Furthermore, while combating COVID-19 is its main priority, the EU is still committed to the European Green Deal. This agreement, first presented in December 2019, aims to move toward a cleaner economy, decrease pollution, and replenish biodiversity by investing in environmentally friendly technologies and avoiding the use of carbon in the energy sector.
Another environmental upside of the COVID-19 crisis is that, due to the slowed pace of society, now is an apt time for open conversations on how each individual can do their part. Moments of change are often times when people are more likely to adjust their behaviors. After a long Zoom call, the feeling of sunshine on your face as you take a walk can serve as a reminder of the value of our planet and nature.
The future of COVID-19 and that of its impact on the environment are unclear. One thing that is for sure, however, is that it is now more important than ever to combat the escalating dangers of climate change.