Orange petalled flowers in meadow photoDecline in activity reduces greenhouse gas emissions and promising signs of recovery are seen in the environment, but the trend may not last

The environment is getting a breather while businesses, transportation and entire industries have temporarily shuttered around the world in efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. Lockdown and social-distancing measures have brought about job losses as businesses struggle to stay afloat amid restrictions. In turn, the economic slowdown has produced sudden drops in emissions, notably in areas worst affected by coronavirus. However, the dip in pollution could be short-lived if normal life resumes without rethinking work, transport, and energy production.

Pollution declines while economies stall and the environment gets a respite

Declining emissions brought about by lockdown measures were first observed in China, where they fell by 25 per cent at the beginning of the year. Indeed, coal consumption at the country’s six largest power plants sharply declined by 40 per cent compared with the previous quarter. China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment reported the number of days with “good quality air” up by 11.4 per cent across 337 cities compared with the same period last year. On March 2, NASA published images showing the stark comparison in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions over the country between January and February 2020.

As coronavirus spread across the globe, satellite images over Europe revealed a similar scenario in March. Atmospheric NO2 levels have sharply declined over conurbations and industrial hubs, most notably over Northern Italy where promising signs of recovery in the environment were seen. The pattern of the spread of COVID-19, followed by national lockdown measures and a subsequent decline in pollution and an upswing in the environment appear to be replicating. Later in March, both Spain and the UK recorded drops in emissions as well. In New York, pollution has reduced by almost 50 per cent compared with the previous year following the introduction of measures to contain the virus.

Potentially short-lived blip as economies restart and concerns that the environment will degrade once more

Sadly, this environmental breather may be a fleeting one. Li Shuo, Senior Policy Advisor for Greenpeace East Asia, notes: “The reason for [the slowdown of industrial activities and coal consumption] was very clear cut. It was primarily because of the social-economic disruption created by coronavirus.” The nation was in lockdown and workers were unable to get to factories, with demand for energy remaining low. As COVID-19 cases begin to decline — and with China eager to reignite its economy — factories are resuming operations and emissions are creeping up once more.

The correlation has been noted at the highest levels. For one, such a rapid – and visible – decline in pollution has provided a snapshot of what a world less laden with pollutants looks like. Andrea Dutton, Climate Scientist at The University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains: “In terms of direct, physical impacts, yes we’re seeing a slowdown in some emissions. But of course, what matters is cumulative emissions. If it’s short-lived, it’s not touching the tip of the iceberg.”

Indeed, what many thought may not be possible within a lifetime has occurred within weeks, albeit transiently. The International Energy Agency (IEA) is taking note of the situation and pushing for major change during this time of upheaval. The agency is calling for governments to put environmentally sound measures at the forefront of their economic stimulus plans as they reignite their economics in the wake of the pandemic.

Assessing the longer-term effect

During times of economic slowdown, the Chinese government turns its attention to infrastructure. Mr Shuo notes that it is “unavoidable” that an upcoming government stimulus package will fund large-scale infrastructure projects. Unfortunately, construction of this magnitude often carries a carbon-heavy price tag. It is unclear at this stage whether a stimulus package of this nature will completely counteract the drop in pollution as a result of lockdown. 

Looking at the impact on annual emissions, Mr Shuo says: “A month ago, most people thought this was a temporary dip in the emissions curve. If your time frame is ‘within this year,’ it is now very hard to tell, because globally and in China what is happening [to the economy] is more than a dip.”

Analysts are assessing the mid-term impact of the drop in emissions in Europe. Marcus Ferdinand, Analyst at Independent Commodity Intelligence Services, is modelling the decline in electricity consumption on Italy — where the effect of the coronavirus pandemic was felt the earliest and the hardest. Using Italy as a reference point for the rest of Europe, Mr Ferdinand projects that energy demand within the European Union will fall by 6.2 per cent this year when compared with a pandemic-free Europe.

The analysis goes on to combine the drop in energy consumption with projected declines in industrial activity and air traffic. Taken together, EU forecast emissions could fall by up to 389 million metric tonnes by the end of 2020. For comparison, this figure is greater than the total annual emissions of France in 2016 and it is almost ten per cent of forecast cumulative emissions for the EU this year. These initial figures and comparisons make the drop in emissions during coronavirus lockdown in Europe seem far more significant than first thought. Moving forward, Mr Ferdinand notes that the projection contains “quite a few assumptions that need to be reassessed as we go along in this crisis.” Another key source of emissions that is excluded from the report is ground transportation, which is currently restricted to various degrees across the continent.

Across the Atlantic, travel-related emissions have sharply fallen as well. Transportation is the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the US, with passenger vehicles making up 60 per cent of the total. INRIX, the Washington-based location data and analytics firm, has been tracking and reporting on US national traffic volume during the pandemic. Its recent report from March 28 to April 3 shows that personal travel has declined nationwide up to 47 per cent. New Jersey witnessed the largest state-wide drop in personal travel at 63 per cent. This short-term dip in road usage could leave a more significant impact on annual emissions than first thought.

Change is possible

On the one hand, the decline in pollution inspires us that drastic change is indeed possible within our lifetimes. It must be stressed that the decline is not the product of environmentally sustainable economies. There is hope that national policies and behavioural changes will prompt a continuation of this promising trend post-pandemic. For instance, a decline in congestion — a major contributor to transport emissions — has been observed and some governments are taking the opportunity to introduce measures to reduce personal vehicle usage once lockdown lifts.