The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Bringing Down Emissions, but Not for Long

If you’re reading this at home—isolated because your company has mandated that everyone work remotely, lest you all spread the novel coronavirus —know that your loneliness may be good for the planet: Emissions are currently plummeting worldwide. In China alone, the economic slowdown has kept 200 megatons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, according to one analysis from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, a stunning 25 percent reduction in the country’s emissions. Industries wither as workers stay home, lightening the load on the electrical grid. Internationally, people are avoiding flying—big time.A pessimistic optimist would say: Well, damn, this is how we save the world from climate change. Hobble capitalism , and the problem basically fixes itself. But a climate scientist would say: Sorry. If other global crises, like financial bubbles, are any indication, this is but a temporary dip in emissions. In fact, to make up for lost money, nations like China will roar back with capitalistic mania. Modern economies halt for no disease—at least not in the long term.
“When the Chinese economy does recover, they are likely to see an increase in emissions in the short term to sort of make up for lost time, in terms of production,” says Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist and the director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, which advocates for climate action. Researchers quantify these emissions by looking at factors like how much coal China reports using in its power plants, and by snooping with satellites on nitrous oxide emissions, a proxy for industrial activity. (Looking at carbon dioxide isn’t particularly useful because that gas mixes more quickly with the atmosphere, muddying the signal.)
Illustrated woman, speech bubble, virus cell

What Is the Coronavirus?

Plus: How can I avoid catching it? Is Covid-19 more deadly than the flu? Our in-house Know-It-Alls answer your questions.

For precedent for this kind of economic bounce-back, look no further than the 2008 financial crash in the US. It caused a 3 percent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions, but those emissions went right back to normal over the next few years as the economy recovered. Indeed, much to the chagrin of climate scientists, global emissions continue to grow year over year. “Broadly speaking, the only real times we've seen large emission reductions globally in the past few decades is during major recessions,” says Hausfather. “But even then, the effects are often smaller than you think. It generally doesn't lead to any sort of systematic change.”
That’s due in large part to the cheapness and abundance of fossil fuels. To go green, it helps to have a government in place that uses subsidies to encourage the adoption of renewables, rather than continuing with business as usual. “This is not not not the way we want to lower emissions, is having a global pandemic, or teetering on the edge of the next Great Depression,” says Jonathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdown, an climate change advocacy group. “But history has shown us that sometimes after an economic shock, a reorganization of the economy follows.”
After the 2008 crash, for example, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which pumped $30 billion into green energy research and projects. That’s a less likely scenario under President Trump, who once claimed in a tweet that China created climate change to make US manufacturing “non-competitive.” In an ideal world, advocates like Hausfather argue, we as a society would pump mountains of money into projects like high-speed rail and retrofitting the energy grid to store renewables like solar power. That’s good for all of civilization, and particularly for the workers who make it possible—a stimulus that both juices the economy and protects the environment. One of the core components of the Green New Deal, a resolution proposed in both houses of Congress in 2019, is guaranteed high-paying jobs in green energy sectors. (The resolution was shot down in the Senate, but the House tasked a committee with considering the climate crisis.)