Enlarge /. Pollution has decreased in China.
COVID-19 is bad for human activities and businesses. Human action and entrepreneurship are bad for the environment. Is COVID-19 good for the environment since our current situation reduces human activity and entrepreneurship?
The cessation of production and transportation in Hubei Province has led to such a dramatic decrease in air pollution across China – emissions have been estimated at 25 percent – that the relative lack of nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide in the air can be observed. Most of the effect was due to a sharp drop in coal combustion, which still provides most of the energy in China. Coal is used to heat houses in rural areas, but also to power plants and industry.
However, the pollution – like the virus itself – can reappear after the locks are removed. This "vengeance pollution" can easily nullify the temporary drop in emissions that we are now seeing. This was exactly what happened in China in 2009, when the Chinese government responded to the global financial crisis with an enormous stimulus package that financed large infrastructure projects.
Similar emission reductions were seen in the United States. Fewer people commute, but they could consume some of the energy they save by heating or cooling the houses they're now working in and buying crap online. As with China in 2009, efforts to restart the economy here are unlikely to have environmental concerns as a top priority.
There are already alarming signs that COVID-19 will serve as a distraction to our government's agenda, which denies (and promotes) climate change. On March 18, they held an oil and gas lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico. Trump enforces environmental rollbacks, some of which require a 30-day comment period (due to the virus, public hearings cannot take place). If you have other things on your mind next month: sorry. And perhaps most worrying is that the EPA has relaxed its environmental standards along with the obligation to monitor to ensure that these standards are met, which essentially gives businesses the opportunity to legally pollute air and water with impunity.
The mass cancellation of flights and international conferences could lead to a reduction in CO2 emissions by airlines, and this could actually persist. Already in the halcyon days of 2016, one hundred and ninety-two countries agreed in an agreement brokered by the United Nations to keep the emissions of airlines at the level of 2020, however they may be. If they pass over, airlines will have to make up the difference by funding green projects.
Now they could be held to this artificially suppressed level of emissions caused by the interference of COVID-19 in everyone's travel plans. And if people learn from this experience that they don't have to fly as much as they thought, airline emissions may remain low. The original agreement talked about "abnormal values" in 2020, so it is unclear how this will affect. However, air travel only makes up around 2.5 percent of global emissions.
As many companies shut down or drive back drastically, their demand for electricity drops. This could be good news as the demand for fossil fuels will decrease. But the demand for renewable energies is also falling. And when these companies start up again, some may stick to their commitment to use clean energy. But others couldn't. The solar industry has already had to go back, both because of the drop in demand and because the supply chain for solar modules goes back to China.
To make matters worse, the sudden decline in gasoline consumption occurs in the midst of an oil price war. If prices remain depressed, they could result in less economical cars being bought once restrictions are lifted.
Not just business
In addition to the direct environmental impact, environmental research has faltered as unnecessary workers have to stay at home. Experiments that have been going on for years, in which sea, air and soil samples are taken and ice cores are drilled worldwide, are either stopped or at least interrupted. As long as this lasts, we will have large gaps in the environmental data. Afterwards, the researchers fear that their funding for further environmental studies will dry up because they have not published any results.
Will COVID-19 be good for the environment or bad in the end? The last short-term energy outlook from the US Energy Information Administration was published on March 18 – basically before a lifetime – and is therefore controversial. Their next outlook, expected on April 7, will include their first estimate of the pandemic's impact on emissions and oil prices. But like many other things about the virus – for example, the death toll – we can only see its final impact on the climate once the pandemic has started. And just as with the virus’s impact on human health, its ultimate impact on the climate largely depends on how governments deal with it.
This global crisis is forcing us – cruelly and against our will – to rethink some of our preferences for harmful behaviors. Hopefully we can use this collective opportunity to reevaluate society if we really need to restart it.