Social Distancing, an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, is having a collateral benefit, and that is it is slowing down the climate crisis. After the World Health Organization has declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic, schools are closed, workers are asked to stay home, and concerts and sports events are put on hold. This practice of social distancing is additionally helping the climate.
Kimberly Nicholas, a researcher at the Lund University Center for Sustainability Studies in Sweden, told The New York Times about three everyday activities that are the largest sources of our carbon emissions. “Any time you can avoid getting on a plane, getting in a car, or eating animal products, that’s a substantial climate savings.” It is because of social distancing and travel restrictions that many people are not flying and have drastically reduced driving or traveling in cars.
Nichols authored a 2018 study and is writing a book on the actions that people can take to reduce emissions.
China, which is the world’s largest carbon emitter, has experienced nearly a 25 percent fall in carbon emissions, experts estimate. There are massive dips in industrial activity and demand for oil because of the rapidly spreading virus, E&E News pointed out.
The relationship between responses to emergencies and carbon emissions is complicated and intertwined. “Pull one string here, and it affects everything else,” said Christopher Jones, a climate policy expert at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead developer at the CoolClimate Network, a research consortium focused on tools to reduce carbon emissions, to E&E News. “With the economy and carbon footprints, they’re so interrelated that you really quickly start to have all these complex interactions.
Social distancing has four climate effects, as identified by The New York Times.
First, massive reductions noticed in transportation-related carbon emissions.
“For average Americans, the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions is driving,” said Nichols to The New York Times. Whenever we reduce driving, it “has a big impact on our climate pollution.”
When we stop flying, a more substantial impact is felt as fewer airplanes in the sky dramatically reduce the amount of human-created greenhouse gas emissions. One round-trip New York to London flight takes eight years of recycling to offset the carbon emissions it generates, according to The New York Times.
Concentrations of pollutants like nitrogen dioxide have decreased by about 40 percent in China, which is released when fossil fuels are burned. As more nations are going into lockdown, demand for air travel, oil, and electricity could continue to drop, as Al Jazeera noted.
The increase in the number of people dining at home has failed to produce a definite effect on carbon emissions, according to the statement of Jones from the CoolClimate Network at UC Berkeley to The New York Times. However, whether we eat out or at home, 25 percent of the food we buy, we waste.
According to Nichols, what we eat matters much more than where we eat. Eating beef has a huge carbon footprint as cattle farming is highly resource-intensive. Therefore, as per the suggestion of The New York Times, if you stockpiled beans and rice, you can lower your carbon footprint.
While working from home, a comfortable environment needs to be created. If people are comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt and are blasting the heat, then it hardly matters that they are not commuting because they will still produce greenhouse gases, according to The New York Times.
Finally, shopping from home can have a positive impact as discussed by The New York Times, especially if you are patient and not demanding rushed delivery. When we order groceries online, it allows efficient packing and logically organized delivery routes.
Unfortunately, the effects of the current reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would not last. As the virus will pass, the industry will ramp up again. People will continue to fly for vacations and will spend hours in traffic while waiting for parking at a concert or ball game.
Gernot Wagner, a clinical associate professor at New York University’s Department of Environmental Studies, told MIT Technology Review: “Emissions in China are down because the economy has stopped and people are dying, and because poor people are not able to get medicine and food. It is not an analogy for how we want to decrease emissions from climate change.”
Furthermore, Helen Mountford of the World Resources Institute told POLITICO that post-recession economies could see a surge in emissions: “After the global financial crisis of 2008, for example, global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production grew 5.9 percent in 2010, more than offsetting the 1.4 percent decrease in 2009.”