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University researchers discuss correlation between social distancing and positive environmental changes

Large-scale economic shutdown and decreased transportation are linked to decreased air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions

<p>Global annual emissions of carbon dioxide could decrease by as much as four to five percent in 2020.</p>

Global annual emissions of carbon dioxide could decrease by as much as four to five percent in 2020.

There have been multiple reports of environmental changes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic — mostly a reduction of pollutants and a slight decrease in carbon dioxide emissions — across the world as transportation decreases, businesses close and people stay home. 

These changes will be temporary if history serves as a guide — similar yet transient environmental trends were observed as recently as 2008-2009 during the recession, according to Environmental Sciences Prof. Scott Doney. 

University faculty and students feel that the changes currently seen can serve as both inspiration and a lesson for helping the environment in the future after the pandemic ends.

Doney explained that recent data for China and Italy show decreased air pollution during the progression of the pandemic. Specifically, decreases have been observed in nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter of diameter 2.5 micrometers — PM2.5 — or fewer. Doney explained that nitrogen dioxide can be seen and mapped by satellites and that PM2.5 is significant as it can get lodged in the lungs and cause health issues.

According to Doney, some areas have seen as much as 10 microgram per cubic meter reductions in air pollution. In March, decreases of this magnitude in China were linked to lower mortality rates for children under 5 and adults over 70, estimating to have saved at least 77,000 lives.

Karen McGlathery, environmental sciences professor and director of the Environmental Resilience Institute, described additional effects being observed both in the U.S. and abroad.

“In New York, carbon monoxide pollution from car and truck traffic has been reduced by nearly 50 percent during some days compared to this time last year,” McGlathery said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “We’re also seeing lower [carbon dioxide] and methane over New York. A similar thing is happening in Europe and China.”

Doney said that the global annual emissions of carbon dioxide could decrease by as much as four to five percent in 2020.

“A 4 to 5 percent decline would [be] the largest annual drop in [carbon dioxide] emissions in the past several decades, and will likely result in a noticeable, though still small, slowing in the build up of [carbon dioxide] in the atmosphere,” Doney said.

However, Doney noted that emissions will rebound when economic activity returns and that long-term changes would depend on people’s behavior.

“The reason why the climate problem is so challenging is that half of emissions stay in the atmosphere for decades to centuries,” Doney said. “It builds up ... There's nothing that strips it out quickly.” 

On the other hand, levels of air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide can change more quickly — sometimes in a matter of days as opposed to weeks or months. Since chemical reactions occurring in vehicles are a major source of air pollutants, efforts have been made to greatly reduce their emission by technologies such as catalytic converters. Hence, the atmosphere often accumulates pollutants from poorly-maintained vehicles with damaged catalytic converters, but carbon dioxide is emitted more ubiquitously.

“The hydrocarbon problem and the [carbon dioxide] problem is harder in some sense because, unless you capture that carbon, it's inherent in where you got your energy from," Doney said.

These observations about the nature and sources of air pollutants and carbon dioxide link to predictions about how fast levels and emissions may return to pre-pandemic levels after social distancing ends and the economy picks up pace.

Doney said that he expects local-level smog and air pollution to return to previous levels in a matter of days or weeks. He thinks that carbon dioxide emission rates could reach this point again by 2021, depending on the progression of the pandemic.

“Depending [on] if things recover, I would expect 2021 to look a lot like the trend we had seen before [the pandemic], which was sort of flat or slightly increasing,” Doney said of carbon dioxide emissions.

This prediction of the time to regress comes from similar trends being observed during and after previous times of economic recession, such as the 2008-2009 recession and the oil shocks during the 1970s, according to Doney.

Fourth-year College student Sam Mogen is studying environmental science and global sustainability and corroborated the link between the environment and the economy.

“Historically, recessions are also linked to noticeable declines in greenhouse gas emissions, but these also return to pre-recession levels once the economy recovers,” Mogen said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

However, Carrie Wentzel, fourth-year College student and environmental science major, expressed some uncertainty over the pace of the environment’s return to its prior state. She said that if restrictions are lifted quickly, there may be a surge of economic activity and faster environmental regression. 

“If there is a more gradual return, it is hard to say how long the environment would take to return to its pre-pandemic state,” Wentzel said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

Although there may be uncertainty surrounding the state of the environment as the pandemic ends, the faculty and students said that there are lessons to be learned from the coronavirus that can be applied to environmental conservation efforts.

Sarah Lang, third-year College student and environmental science major, said that people who live closer to parks and nature have been using them more often and hopes that this action could lead to more environmentally-conscious habits.

“After isolation ends, maybe a greater appreciation of the relationships in our lives and the natural world can translate into more thoughtful ways of living and thinking that affect our actions and politics,” Lang said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

McGlathery said that three things are common between the pandemic and potential climate change relief efforts — the need to listen to scientists for advice, collective and systemic action and an appreciation of the scope of the problem.

“Climate change, like pandemics, has no borders,” McGlathery said. “We cannot separate ourselves from the problem.” 

Mogen and Doney offered a few specific actions that could be taken on personal and collective levels.

According to Doney, electrifying transportation, switching to public transportation and generally reducing travel by vehicles would all help to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution.

“A lot of European cities are moving to eliminate vehicles in the center of the cities, both to reduce congestion, but also to reduce pollution,” Doney said.

Mogen echoed Doney’s sentiment but remained wary of the pandemic’s ability to spark instant change.

“Wealthy people, who contribute the most to global climate change, should all drive and fly less … but I don't expect that the current pandemic will really change that trajectory,” Mogen said. “Warnings of global climate change have been sounding for 50-odd years and yet we have not made necessary changes/compromises to address it.”

Mogen also expressed his hope for future action by political leaders. 

“I hope that people see the failures of our current political leaders and vote in leaders more invested in protecting those most threatened by international crises like COVID-19 and climate change,” Mogen said. 

Lang remained hopeful about environmental conservation efforts.

“Our response to the COVID-19 pandemic shows that wide-scale mobilization for a threat against humanity is possible, and that prevention is more effective than response,” Lang said.

The article has been updated to include the most recent estimate of the drop in carbon emissions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.