What Can Environmentalists Learn From A Virus?

Edith Holmsten, Staff Writer

COVID-19 has forced people across the globe to adapt to increased online communication, lowered airplane travel and limited commutes to work or businesses given safety precautions. The adaptations have caused a significant drop in carbon emissions, so environmentalists hope that efforts to combat COVID-19 can be learned from to mitigate climate change in the future.

A United in Science Report found that carbon emissions dropped 17% during April compared to their 2019 levels. The significant difference in carbon emissions between 2019 and 2020 are mainly because of reduced fossil fuel-burning for vehicle and airplane travel, both of which accounted for over 90% of the U.S.’s total carbon emissions in 2018 according to the U.S. Energy Information Association. By April, the demand for coal decreased by 8% and the demand for oil lowered by 5% compared to the January to March averages in 2019, according to the International Energy Association. The significant decrease in fossil fuels being burned is directly related to cancelled flights and limited commutes to work or stores. 

An International Air Transport Association Report showed that the demand for airplane trips plummeted by about 70% compared to last year. Airplane travel alone accounts for about 5% of carbon emissions according to Climate Home News, so the notable difference in the amount of airplanes flying has an effect on carbon emissions. 

The limit of planes in the sky have also allowed scientists to do beneficial research on the impact of decreased air traffic and overall carbon emissions on the atmosphere. According to Climate Home News, NASA scientists have specifically examined condensation trails that jets and airplanes produce which are known to increase greenhouse gas levels. With clear skies, scientists have used satellite photography to gauge how often planes produce condensation trails and, therefore, the impact that planes have on emissions. The study found that given the creation of condensation trails, airplane travel accounts for 5% of total emissions instead of the earlier estimate of 2% of total emissions which can help scientists and policy makers truly understand ways to limit carbon emissions since air travel accounts for more carbon emissions than we believed earlier. 

Along with a drop in airplane travel, the total vehicle miles driven in the U.S. dropped an astonishing 64% compared to 2019 according to a Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler (KPMG) report. The report also found that the drop in vehicle traffic was mostly caused by limited commutes to work and decreased driving to shopping centers, which usually account for about 40% of U.S. citizens’ driving each year. The limited car travel results in lower emissions and has sparked an increase in walking and biking during COVID-19. The Wall Street Journal found that the bicycle traffic on New York City’s Williamsburg Bridge increased to over 60,000 bicyclists in June compared to an average of only 4,500 bicyclists the year before. In Wuhan, China, there was a similar increase in bicycling even among people who do not already own bikes. From January to the end of March, nearly 110,000 people per day used the bike-share program Meituan in Wuhan according to the Wall Street Journal. The increase of bikers and pedestrians around cities plays a role in decreased carbon emissions because fewer people are burning fossil fuels to travel by cars or buses.

As a result of the increased popularity of bicycling and walking, multiple urban cities across the globe are starting to get creative with city planning for bike lanes. Paris, France, has committed to adding 400 miles of bike lanes to their city for people who are trying to avoid public transportation due to COVID-19. Additionally, Mexico City, Mexico, has committed to adding four times the current number of bike lanes they have now. Oakland, California, has closed nearly 10% of their city streets to vehicles in order to promote pedestrian and bicyclist traffic. This investment in bicycle lanes is beneficial because it means that future generations can have safer ways of transportation that reduce carbon emissions and encourage outdoor exercise even after the pandemic.

Without these needed innovations in research and bicycle lanes, scientists worry that we could continue on our path of rising carbon emissions. According to the Washington Post, in June, U.S. traffic rebounded back to almost 90% of what it was before lockdowns began. Given loosened lockdowns, increased businesses opening, and more people traveling, carbon emissions have already risen to a meager 5% below 2019 levels according to the BBC. If we do not learn from our carbon emission reduction during COVID-19 lockdowns, scientists with Nature Climate Change predict that reductions in carbon emissions could only change the world temperature about 0.01 degrees Celsius over the next five years. In comparison, a 2019 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows that the world temperature needs to drop about 1.15 degrees Celsius to be level with the pre-industrial temperature averages. 

The rebound of greenhouse gases does not need to be the final story of COVID-19. We can learn from COVID-19 measures of lowering car traffic, increasing biking, conducting work from home and lowering the number of planes in the air.

COVID-19 lockdowns and the adaptation of our airplane travel, commutes to businesses and work can be a learning experience for city planners, scientists and participants in society. Environmentalists are hoping that our adaptations to COVID-19 will highlight to businesses, scientists, and government leaders the possible ways to lower our skyrocketing carbon emissions and invest in environmentally-friendly practices before it is too late.