The air in Delhi was clean enough under a lockdown in late March that residents finally could see the blue sky. The famous smog in Los Angeles lifted. Where I live, in Salt Lake City, Utah, the air was clear enough that I could see all the way across a typically gray and polluted valley. Honking horns and smoke-belching trucks were replaced with the songs of birds.
“I have not seen such blue skies in Delhi for the past 10 years,” Jyoti Pande Lavakare, the co-founder of Indian environmental organization Care for Air, told CNN in an April 1 article. “It is a silver lining in terms of this awful crisis that we can step outside and breathe.”
That these changes surprise us is notable in its own right. How numb we had become to the presence of air pollution, which kills millions per year. It had become an accepted backdrop of urban life.
To be clear, Covid-19 — and its associated work-from-home mandates, travel restrictions and economic slowdown — is not fixing air pollution, nor is it solving the greatest environmental threat of our time, the climate crisis. To truly embrace fix those things would look nothing like this awful period of time, which has haphazardly slowed human-caused pollution even as it has brought suffering, economic hardship and deaths.
It has shown us, however, one of the key benefits we would experience if we were to tackle both of those problems by transitioning away from dirty fuels like coal, oil and natural gas.
The skies would be clearer. And the future would be much safer.
Before we look into the crystal ball at what the pandemic might do to the future of pollution and climate change, let’s consider the pollution reductions that have taken place during this period of dislocation, hardship and death.
(Again, the way we’ve gone about this is all wrong. A pandemic is not an environmental or planetary fix despite the unmistakable, tangible environmental benefits that came in on this one.)
Air pollution has been reduced, at least temporarily. One researcher, Marshall Burke, an associate professor of earth system science at Stanford University, estimated in a March 8 post that pandemics are not good for public health, but cleaner air because of economic shutdowns “likely saved twenty times more lives in China than have currently been lost directly due to infection with the virus in that country.” That’s a very back-of-the-envelope and preliminary calculation, to be sure, but it highlights how much death the fossil fuel industry, a major polluter of our skies, contributes to in “normal” times.
He arrives at that figure by looking at air pollution data from January and February 2020, and comparing that with previous years. Burke assumes –“conservatively,” he says — that only 50% of China’s population experienced the clearer skies. About 60% of Chinese people live in urban areas. He assumes that no one in rural areas benefited and some urban residents did not benefit. He then combines that info with expected mortality rates for certain levels of air pollution. The pollution reductions are estimated to have saved –these are not actual measurements of what happened — between 1,400 and 4,000 kids and 51,700 to 73,000 adults older than 70 from premature death, he estimates. He cites a March 8 figure that 3,100 people in China had died from Covid-19 at that point.
Coronavirus has implications for climate change, too. Greenhouse gas emissions — largely carbon dioxide, from burning fossil fuels — drive global warming and therefore are the most dangerous to the planet and our future. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that CO2 emissions will drop 8% over the entirety of this year compared with 2019 due to Covid-related shutdowns. “Not only are annual emissions in 2020 set to decline at an unprecedented rate, the decline is set to be almost twice as large as all previous declines since the end of World War II combined,” the IEA wrote in its Global Energy Review 2020, released in April.
Before 2020, emissions had risen year after year. Last year alone, burning fossil fuels sent about 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Physics are partly to blame. The atmosphere is like a bathtub. Carbon dioxide builds up in this tub, and it takes time to drain out naturally. Scientists measure the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere in parts per million (ppm), and they’ve been taking measurements from observatories in Hawaii and elsewhere for many decades now. They expect the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere — the water level in the tub — to continue to increase this year despite a slowing of CO2 emissions, or the amount of water we’re pouring in.
Readings in late May showed about 418 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Pre-industrialization, the number was more like 280.
Adequately addressing the climate crisis would require shutting off entirely the flow of water into the bath — or reaching net zero carbon emissions — by about mid-century.
What the future should bring
Covid-19 is not stopping global warming. We’ve been burning fossil fuels since the mid-1800s, and that system hasn’t changed. But we have slowed our emissions a bit. The benefits of this shift — notably cleaner air — are already apparent, and that should motivate us.
Optimistically, the pandemic created a sense of possibility that could sway reality.
We can and should live in cities where the sky is blue and visible, and where the stars shine at night. Cities that are walkable and green, where the air doesn’t smell and taste like soot, and where the machines are quiet enough for birds to hear themselves. Cities with safe public transit options, so we don’t sit on congested highways for hours each day.
All of us, urban and rural alike, should have access to technologies — electric cars, solar and wind power — that make all of this possible all the time, not just during a crisis.
We should be able to flip on the lights or the air conditioner knowing they’re powered by clean electricity — not by coal and gas, which heat up the planet and contribute to rising seas, melting ice and deadlier heatwaves.
Enacting carbon taxes and other policies that encourage this shift as quickly as possible, would allow us to go about our lives free from the guilt and moral conflict that the era of global warming creates.
The fossil fuel workers whose jobs are displaced could be retrained for work in other industries, instead of being left behind. Doing this would protect the forests that clean the air for us and support the Earth’s fantastic biodiversity. It would let us walk outside into a healthier, vibrant world — one that we’re leaving better off for ourselves and future generations. Not one that’s trashed.
Leaps this big — and far bigger — are achievable with international cooperation, carbon pricing, stricter government regulation of fossil fuel industries and with post-Covid stimulus packages that help shove a fully clean-energy economy into existence as quickly as possible.
We can allow the carbon bathtub to start draining, and clean up our cities, too.
What the future will likely bring
These solutions would be gnarly to implement in the current political environment, though.
What’s more, “without fundamental shifts in global energy production, we should have no reason to expect a lasting reduction in emissions,” said Niklas Hagelberg, a climate change coordinator at the UN Environment Program, in a news release. “COVID-19 instead provides us a chance to take stock of the risks we are taking in our unsustainable relationship with our environment and seize the opportunity to rebuild our economies in more environmentally responsible ways.”
It would be naïve to suspect that politicians, especially in the United States, still grappling with the pandemic, and now the unrest stemming from the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, would be giddy about tackling the other existential crisis — the climate emergency — once the mounting death toll and economic freefall from Covid-19 are stabilized. Instead of promoting cleaner energy and cleaner skies, the Trump administration continues to prop up fossil fuels.
In fact, there are early indications that Covid-era stimulus packages in the United States, in Europe and in China are supporting the very industries we know are putting the future at risk.
History teaches us that we have had plenty of chances to wake up to the perilous dangers of air pollution and the climate emergency. The first Earth Day was held in 1970, 50 years ago — and both topics were on the table then. Demonstrators wore gas masks, decrying air pollution.
A NASA scientist testified about the era of global warming in front of the US Senate the late 1980s. Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Maria, the fires in Australia and California, the migrant crises in Europe and Central America — the list of climate influenced disasters is long and getting longer. I fear we’re becoming numb to this destruction.
Worsening disaster, too, is becoming an accepted backdrop of reality, a lingering smog.
We’re too quick to accept progressively more awful “new normals,” even when pollution and runaway warming are far from normal, as is a pandemic that the world could have done more to prepare for.
The challenge for those of us who care about the climate crisis, and who understand that it threatens people not just now but for generations to come, is to remember that things can be different. It would be awful if a deadly pandemic is what we need to see it. But one hopeful outcome of this tragedy could be the public’s realization that cleaner skies are possible. And with the right technologies and clean-energy policies, they can be a fixture of modern life.