Short-term emissions drop nothing to celebrate

March 19th, 2020

For the past few days as the COVID-19 pandemic upends global routines, social media has been flooded with people sharing hopeful messages about the improved state of the climate.

Posts speak of a healing climate as the coronavirus and protective measures impacting economic and transportation patterns give the earth a breather.

Recent emissions and air quality data from countries badly impacted by the pandemic reinforce such climate positivity amidst the new health emergency.

In Venice, now that cruise ships and diesel-powered boats carrying scores of tourists have stopped working, the city’s canal have cleared up and fish schools are seen making their way through the city’s canal systems.

The waters running through Venice have returned to their clear blue hue from its more well-known tainted green complexion, reminiscent of the “lagoon waters of the ancient times” as one local newspaper enthused.

Italy’s air quality has also dramatically improved. Data compiled by the European Space Agency show that nitrogen dioxide from cars and power plants have drastically declined.

Particulate matter and emissions in China also dropped after strict measures were brought in to contain the virus’ spread. A Stanford University researcher estimates that premature deaths caused by air pollution in China – 1.6 million annually — could now drop by up to 80,000 following the two-month drop in production and associated emissions.

The long-term emissions reality, however, is in tension with any short-term positive developments, with China, for example, already ramping production levels back up.

As Reuters reported last week, the director of the environmental enforcement at China’s Ministry of Environment said that the country will adjust environmental oversight to allow companies to resume production.

Companies who make small mistakes that will not cause immediate environmental damage and can be rectified over time will not be punished and deadlines to meet environmental standards will be stretched out.

Nothing to celebrate

Thus, experts warn that we should not expect the current crisis to have a positive, lasting influence on the state of the planet.

According to Professor John Wenger, a specialist in physical and environmental chemistry at University College Cork, temporary periods of reduced emissions do little to aid our long-suffering planet.

“The climate doesn’t really respond to [reduced] emissions on that timescale, I don’t think we are going to see any effect of this on climate change itself,” he tells The Green News.

Prof Wenger says that the planet has undergone an extended period of human-driven damage, and is going to need a similar timeframe to recover.

“We are definitely seeing an effect on air quality and air pollution because of reduced air travels but remember that we are talking about the climate,” he says. “Any real impact on the climate would require a long period of change.”

It is estimated that revenues of the global aviation industry will drop by at least 11 per cent this year, prompting airline executives to seek supports, with the EU considering a bailout package for the sector.

Prof Wenger is also concerned that once the pandemic passes, airlines will try to compensate for financial loss during the outbreak by opting out of funding eco-friendly initiatives.

“The world is going to be financially affected to fund the fight against the coronavirus and essentially we might go into a global recession,” he says. “I genuinely hope that they don’t start dismantling any policies in place to protect the environment to protect air quality or address climate change”.

Prof Wenger hopes that the impact of COVID-19 emergency on emissions will act as a wake-up call for global citizens about unnecessary travel.

“I think this should be a very sobering experience for many people, and I’m hoping it would cause people to realise that they need to change their ways,” he says.

“I’m hoping that this is going to put things into perspective that we don’t need to fly to another European city, we can just visit [an Irish city] for the weekend.”

About the Author

Shamim Malekmian

Shamim is a Senior Reporter at The Green News and a contributing writer to the Irish Examiner, Cork Evening Echo and the Dublin Inquirer.