Coronavirus: Driving Hope for a Greener, Cleaner Environment

All around us is the deathly silence of coronavirus. We are surrounded by stories of this disease which was once just a blurb in the news. Which became an epidemic in China. Which then turned into a global pandemic. Quarantine has emptied the streets and halted work in factories once bustling with people. We pass stores with “Closed” signs and shutters drawn, our schools have begun learning remotely, and our presence in public areas continues to be prohibited. Yes, it’s old news. You’ve read this line many, many times. What’s the catch?

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Caption: the abandoned streets of Wuhan, China.

Pause and think about the effect of this world event outside of human affairs. How is staying home, shuttering industries, and the general severity of the coronavirus affecting the environment? This disease is in fact producing widespread positive effects on nature. While poor climate conditions may return once people begin to use transportation, energy, etc. (namely commuting to work, opening businesses up again) this positive short-term adjustment has the potential to become a long-term transition.

 

Why is this? A crucial sector that’s a leading contributor to climate change has fallen off a cliff.  That sector is energy—specifically electricity production, which annually makes up 27.5% of carbon dioxide emissions. According to the New York Times, “As factories, retailers, restaurants and office buildings have shut down nationwide to slow the spread of the virus, demand for electricity has fallen sharply. And because coal plants often cost more to operate than gas plants or renewables, many utilities are cutting back on coal power first in response.” This drop in coal power is doing wonders to combat severe problems such as air pollution, which stems from global warming.

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According to the BBC, “Compared with this time last year, levels of pollution in New York have reduced by nearly 50% because of measures to contain the virus.” In China, emissions fell by 25% at the beginning of the year as people were instructed to stay home. Factories have shut down and coal use at China’s six largest power plants fell by 40% since October. Compared to the same time last year, the percentage of “good air quality days” has increased by 11.4% due to the lowered emissions and air pollution across 337 of its cities, according to the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment. 

In Europe as well, positive change has been noticed. Satellite images show toxic nitrogen dioxide (No2) emissions fading in Northern Italy, Spain, and the UK. No2 emissions are most frequently released as a result of road traffic and other fossil fuel combustion processes.

 

 

Driven partly by this pandemic, renewable energy is on track to eclipse coal for the first time in the US, a milestone that hardly seemed imaginable a decade ago when coal was responsible for almost half of our country’s electricity. Many powerful economic forces, however, have led to the retirement of hundreds of aging coal plants since 2010 and the lessened use of remaining coal plants. Another large factor that aides in this achievement is the recent plunge in transportation levels, which according to the EPA normally makes up 28.9% of global emissions. Driving and aviation, which respectively contribute 72% and 11% of transportation emissions specifically, are being cut as people are staying home, avoiding the commute to school or work, and cutting out unnecessary travel.

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Caption: After four Louiseville, Kentucky power plants retired coal as their source of energy, local residents’ asthma visits and hospitalizations dropped dramatically according to research published by Columbia University.

And some of these alternatives are going to be permanent.  For example, before COVID-19, Barclays, JP Morgan, and Morgan Stanley had tens of thousands of workers in office towers across Manhattan, New York.  All three firms have decided that, when the city reopens, it’s highly unlikely that all of those workers will ever return to those offices. Additionally, Twitter has declared that going forward, all employees are permitted to work from home permanently, and Google has announced that employees from multiple departments are required to work from home rather than in the office for the time being.

These modifications may last for a long time and can alter the working habits of many people, as well as the demand for electricity. The drop in the economy will have made a mark in climate change that will stay for years. Although people can begin commuting to school and work after this pandemic, some things will be permanently different.

 

These rapid fluctuations can only suggest the enormous effect of this sudden pandemic on the rest of the world, some of which may be permanent. Actions that climate activists have been advocating for decades have been achieved in a few months. Previously “impossible” changes have happened in the face of this pandemic, and have truly reshaped the course of our planet!