Coronavirus and the Environment
There is really only one news story everyone is discussing right now, Coronavirus. At this point we are all too aware of how the pandemic has impacted our ability to work, meet with others and even shop for necessities. One area of interest to us here at Act on Energy is the impact of Coronavirus, and our responses to the pandemic, on the environment.
Can Icelandic volcanoes tell us about Coronavirus and the climate?
Everything we do as individuals and as a society has an impact on the environment, however small. Large changes to how we live are going to result in large environmental changes.
You may remember the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano in Iceland with a very long name. Following its eruptions, the decision was made not to fly passenger aircraft over concerns ash might cause accidents. The cancelled flights created problems for many in Europe and the US, but because flights were grounded for a short period of time there was a temporary, but notable, decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. The volcanic eruption caused 150,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions (or equivalent) which, although a large quantity, is dwarfed by the 2.8m tonnes of CO2 that the grounded aircraft would have otherwise produced. The lesson to be learned from Eyjafjallajökull is a simple one, if a highly polluting aspect of our lives is limited or stopped entirely then we are going to see reductions in greenhouse gases. Limits resulting from coronavirus will have a similar effect (as businesses, factories etc are closed). The downside to the story of Eyjafjallajökull is that flights returned to normal quickly after the ash and smoke had cleared, so although there was some carbon saving, this was only temporary. Will the same be said of coronavirus?
Government and Industry
The simple answer to what’s currently happening is that global emissions due to the coronavirus crisis have fallen. The question is whether these will be temporary or permanent. China’s lockdown at the start of this year lasted 76 days. During this period, few factories and businesses remained open and only a small number of people were able to leave their homes to work. We can look at this similarly to the 2010 volcanic eruption. The first two weeks of lockdown saw a drop of 200 million tonnes of carbon, or 25% decrease in carbon emissions as a result of factory closures across china reducing the need for power from coal and oil fuelled power stations. At the time of writing (24th April 2020) power usage has increased back to normal levels, this is a process that has taken 7 weeks. This pause equals roughly 1% of china’s total yearly greenhouse gas emissions. This may seem relatively small but it’s a colossal figure and similar drops in energy use across the world are likely.
In New York, Carbon Monoxide (CO) emissions from vehicles have dropped by 50% over the last few weeks while the state has been in lockdown. The drop in emissions from cars is likely to be temporary as people return to work. Long term trends may differ though, if, for example, businesses consider home working in some industries to be as productive as office or site work, a long term reduction in the use of vehicles for work would be an environmental good in the long run.
There are two likely outcomes to this. Following the financial crash of 2008, globally emissions increased by 5% as countries attempted to manufacture their way out of further financial trouble, it’s possible that China could do the same after coronavirus. If global trade decreases as a result of economic problems, then demand may not be high enough for manufacturing to get back to previous levels so quickly. It is hard to speculate in this area as countries will all take different approaches to returning to normality.
What’s visibly different?
For the first time in 30 years, Indians in Punjab have been able to see the Himalayas up to 120 miles away. Usually this view is distorted by smog from industry and the restrictions imposed by government have given residents a glimpse of a view that many who have lived in the area have never seen.
The visibility of the canals in Venice is widely reported to have improved and newspaper articles have told of fish, jellyfish and other wildlife visible from bridges over canals there and Venice is currently undergoing plans to change how tourism will operate in the city following the pandemic. Satellite images show the canals calm and blue in a country most affected by the disease. Some of the posts regarding swans and dolphins have been exposed as fakes and it will take longer than the current shutdown for rivers and canals to recover from centuries of human use.
Waste and Recycling
Waste has increased in the UK during the pandemic so far. A third of councils in England and Wales have reported increases of between 20% and 50% increases to their collections. Many have halted food and garden waste collection and some councils have decided to incinerate recycling rather than processing it over staffing concerns. Incineration and lack of recycling are, understandably, not positive for the environment. Personal protective equipment is regularly not recycled and art projects and beach cleaners have documented the large quantities of non-recyclable protective clothing that has been discarded adding to the problem of plastic pollution.
In the UK, we have had queries from people asking if power cuts are likely from people working at home where they use more energy. Fortunately, the answer is no as, although people are using more energy in their homes, the decrease in energy usage from businesses is greater than the increase in our homes. Currently the energy use in the UK can be up to 20% less than normal which creates different problems for National Grid but nothing beyond what they can cope with.
So what next?
We do not know what long term environmental impacts will result from the coronavirus pandemic. What we know is that many different approaches will be considered by different countries each with their own agendas and priorities. The global financial crisis resulted in increased pollution in the long term. Eyjafjallajökull’s legacy was a pause in emissions for a short period before the world returned to normal. The current coronavirus pandemic has turned the way we currently live on its head and we will have to adjust to life afterwards. Let’s hope global recovery efforts take the environment into consideration when moving forward.