#Coronachange: the unlikely climate change experiment caused by the coronavirus pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic is devastating industries, economies and the health and well-being of people all around the world. Extreme lockdown measures mean fewer cars on the road, fewer planes in the sky and many heavy polluting industries coming to a grinding halt.
While we head into one of the most uncertain periods in recent years, images by NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) show a huge reduction in air pollution over China and Europe. Elsewhere in the world, experts also report a sharp drop in pollution levels.
This is #coronachange, the unlikely climate change experiment caused by the coronavirus pandemic, showing us the extent to which changes need to be made to slow down climate change.
The effects of #coronachange around the world
- UK: With the UK now in lock down, air pollution is dropping across major cities, especially London. The National Centre for Atmospheric Science showed a sharp drop in air pollution for London beginning in mid-February, in comparison to previous years.
- Italy: ESA recently released satellite images showing reduced levels of air pollution over northern Italy, the epicentre of the country’s coronavirus infections.
- China: NASA published satellite images which showed a dramatic decline in pollution levels over China. Levels of nitrogen dioxide, that would typically be released by power plants, factories and cars also fell significantly across major Chinese cities between late January and February. China’s carbon dioxide emissions fell by approx. 200m tonnes in February.
- United States: In New York, researchers believe that carbon monoxide emissions fell by 50% due to 35% lower traffic levels compared to a year ago. There was also a 5-10% drop in carbon dioxide and methane over the city.
We’ve seen this before
In 2010, when Iceland’s erupting volcano ejected a significant amount of ash across Europe, the airspace in many European countries was closed for nearly a week. After planes were grounded, there was a noticeable drop in pollution levels. An analysis of air quality around Heathrow and Gatwick airport in London showed pollutants that cause respiratory problems had plummeted.
Furthermore, after the traumatic events of 9/11, air travel restrictions were imposed for days after the attacks. While planes were grounded, air pollution fell and the temperature in the US changed slightly.
Climate change is real
Once again, during times of disaster where travel and industry are severely disrupted, we can see a similar trend: air pollution falls and climate change slows down. Climate change sceptics will no longer have ammunition to refute this issue because we can clearly see just what needs to be done to stop global warming.
#Coronachange reminds us how polluting fossil fuels are
Before the coronavirus outbreak, scientists predicted that we would either flat-line or increase emissions slightly this year. In 2019, global fossil fuel emissions were up by 0.6%.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, it’s clear that the slowdown in China has been a big contributor to reducing global air pollution levels. China is currently the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, and the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, due to its dependence on coal for industrial power generation. Outside of industry, coal also contributes to 65% of China’s rural household emissions.
Likewise, in many other countries around the world, self-isolation has meant that transportation, aviation and manufacturing industries have pretty much come to a grinding halt. The only fossil fuel burning we haven’t stopped is the use of oil and gas for heating our homes.
Pollution at home
Houses are also big polluters. In the UK, they make up 14% of our greenhouse gases, a similar level to car emissions. This is because conventional oil and gas boilers emit a huge amount of greenhouse gases to provide heat and hot water for your home. Therefore replacing your boiler with a renewable energy system like a heat pump, must be a priority after this pandemic, to try and offset the emissions from heavy polluting industries.
Looking beyond the pandemic
While the corona pandemic is devastating, and we should by no means consider this as climate justice, what it is doing is showing us the extent to which changes need to be made to slow down climate change.
Once the crisis is over, emissions may increase to previous levels. But I believe we’ll see a sea change in the way the world works. People may be reluctant to fly so much; businesses will change the way they operate after adjusting to full time remote working, and more education institutions might move online. Overall these types of changes in lifestyle and business practice could significantly reduce our carbon footprints.
However, as there’s so much uncertainty at this point, it’s difficult to know what’s next. But one thing we know for sure, is that we need to take heed of this forced climate change experiment. We cannot return to business as usual and continue on the current trajectory. We didn’t learn from past events, but we must learn from #coronachange.
(Photo courtesy of Nasa Earth Observatory)