EarthTalk – Did the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic have a positive impact on climate change?

PROMO 660 x 440 - Environment EarthTalk
Published Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Dear EarthTalk:

Given the economic slowdown around the world due to the coronavirus in 2020, was there a positive impact on climate change?

M. Stiles, Meriden, CT

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly led to a decrease in industrial activity and resulting greenhouse gas emissions during its reign over the planet in 2020. A recent study by German researchers calculated that global carbon dioxide emissions fell by about eight percent over the past year. While this is no doubt a good result from an otherwise bad situation, the researchers warn it represents nothing but a small drop in the bucket compared to what we still need to accomplish--even bigger annual emissions drops every year for decades to come--to avert cataclysmic climate change.

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PICT Hurricane Maria Jose NASA
Will future hurricanes resemble 2017's Jose (top) and Maria? Scientists have new answers. NASA

According to study co-author Ralf Sussmann, we would need to achieve zero emissions around the world by 2055 to limit global warming at 1.5oC. The declining rate of greenhouse gas emissions during the global pandemic would not only need to be upheld, but it would also need to be amplified to achieve zero emissions. Sussmann and other study authors stated that to achieve these reductions "political measures have to be taken to directly initiate fundamental technological changes in the energy and transport sectors."

Despite the drop in emissions over this past year, 2020 will likely go down in history as the year things started to really accelerate with regard to climate change's effects. Recent increases in both the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events are consequences of global climate change. "Global warming can contribute to the intensity of heat waves... Increasing temperatures mean a longer wildfire season," reports the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. "Global warming also increases water vapor in the atmosphere, which can lead to more frequent heavy rain and snowstorms." This means stronger hurricanes and flooding. 

In 2020, extreme weather events plagued people around the world amid the pandemic. In the U.S. alone, Americans witnessed orange skies clouded with smoke and a number of powerful hurricanes coming from the Atlantic. Globally, there have been record high average temperatures, double the activity of a normal hurricane season, the hottest temperature ever reliably recorded in human history (54oC), the costliest damages from flooding to date in China, record low Arctic sea ice, and the strongest tropical cyclone to hit land that has ever been recorded (Super Typhoon Goni). These abnormally extreme weather events are all indicators of the accelerating effects of climate change on our planet.

Even though climate change continues to worsen, in small ways all over the world nature has taken this economic slowdown as a chance to breathe. For example, the murky waters of Venice's canals became clearer than they had been in decades--and sea life even returned to the city's urban waterways. While global warming has not stopped because of the global pandemic, we have learned that Mother Nature responds positively to our improved behavior (even when not intended), which gives environmental advocates hope to continue working. It's now up to every one of us to make significant changes in our own orbits--perhaps by keeping up our slower and more stationary existences even after we have a grip on coronavirus--if we hope to mitigate and reverse the effects of climate change. 

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