Has COVID-19 Helped in Our Fight Against Climate Change?

Students (on- and off-campus): I’m sure that many of us remember when we had to pack up some of our things and go home without knowing when, or if, we would be back. Around this time, many states went into complete lockdown and required that only essential travel occurred. Typically, most of working America has to travel, usually by car, to go to work, but a large majority of this travel ceased with these lockdowns. Many production companies stopped manufacturing. Temporarily ending these practices, as well as normalizing a skeleton staff, has definitely caused less greenhouse gas emissions to be released into the atmosphere, but did ‘Quarantine 2020’ slow down the rate of climate change? The answer is mixed.
If you are here for the short answer, it’s no. This dip in greenhouse gas emissions will not ease climate change effects in the long run. The IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 2014 Report highlights that even if we stopped all carbon emissions right now, we would still have to wait many years before climate change effects lessened. It would take quite a while until we saw significant decreases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
So, what did the lockdown show us? Well, one difference we could physically see, other than less traffic and more PPE, was that some cities around the world were able to see the sky and surrounding landscape. Car pollution decreased. Industrial emissions decreased. Air quality improved. Visibility improved. We may not have solved the larger problem of climate change, but we now know that we can limit air pollutants enough to have safer, cleaner air in cities. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 4.2 million people die each year from health complications caused by air pollution and overall poor air quality.
A common air pollutant and greenhouse gas is NO2, or nitrogen dioxide. I know, I know, it is not one of the greenhouse gases that we typically talk about (I’m looking at you methane and carbon dioxide), but it is a significant gas emitted in the atmosphere. NO2 is commonly released by vehicles due to their use of gasoline. When most people stopped driving (and idling) in traffic, there was a significant decrease in nitrogen dioxide emissions.
As a refresher (or potentially brand new information to some of you), there are four major greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFC). They are in order of most to least abundant but in reverse order of the most harmful based on residence time, or how long each gas will spend in the atmosphere. HFCs will spend upwards of thousands of years in the atmosphere while NO2 will spend over a hundred years in the atmosphere.
We know that people are dying from climate change and pollution. We know that we are able to produce better air quality. We know that many jobs can be done at home. We can limit the amount of needless transportation and travel. We know that rush hour can be a thing of the past. We may not be able to stop or significantly slow climate change effects overnight, but we do know that we can increase air quality standards while lowering emissions.
When looking back at 2020 and atmospheric data, will we be able to see a distinct slow or drop in the rate of greenhouse gases? No. It definitely didn’t hurt to have a pause in emissions. But even if we had stuck with those emission levels we saw earlier this year, we probably wouldn’t have seen much change in atmospheric greenhouse gases for many months to years.
As we near 2021, when you try to forget some of the events of 2020, remember what we are capable of. We are a society that loves instant gratification, but climate change is going to be a long battle. Don’t remember 2020 as only the year of the pandemic, when we had to wear masks and ran out of toilet paper. Remember it as the year where we were able to see what happens when we lower our pollution and emissions overnight. We can have clean air in cities. We can start to change our ways towards a more sustainable future. We had to do it once, and we can do it again. Even if we don’t get to see the results immediately, every small step in reducing emissions now and creating a new “normal” after the pandemic settles is important and will help lead us towards a better, safer future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *