Quirks and Quarks

COVID-19 has led to huge emissions reductions — can we learn from this?

A global pandemic is not how we'd choose to reduce emissions, but scientists are studying how COVID-19 is affecting climate change, and how climate change could affect COVID-19.

Scientists are also thinking about how climate change could make us more vulnerable to disease

Empty highways reflect reduced emissions from transportation, but industrial greenhouse gas emissions are down as well in countries experiencing COVID-19 related reductions in activity. (Richard Bouhet/AFP/Getty Images)

Canadian climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe is, like most of us, at home this week practicing social distancing.

But she's still working hard, collecting data on fossil fuel emissions around the world. And that data is painting a vivid picture of how the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the emissions that drive climate change.

"What we are seeing are very significant reductions not only in carbon emissions, but in air pollutants," she told Quirks & Quarks. "In fact one of my colleagues at Stanford, Marshall Burke, has estimated that the reduction in air pollution in China may have saved many more lives than were actually lost in the pandemic."

To be clear, Hayhoe is not suggesting in any way that this pandemic is a good thing.

"Anything that causes human suffering is a tragedy, but it highlights the fact that often we have become accustomed to — and blasé to — issues like air pollution that are responsible for millions of deaths every year," she said.

Will COVID-19's effects on climate change last?

Carbon dioxide emissions are down across the globe, most significantly in places where industries are shuttering. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air reported the lockdown in China cut the country's carbon emissions by 25 per cent, or 200 megatons of CO2, because of a reduction in things like coal burning, oil refining and airline traffic.

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe in 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Hayhoe doubts these declines will be permanent, as those same activities will be back online once the pandemic passes.

"Much of that production will ramp back up double time. So the net emission reduction will not be known until well after the fact. And it's likely to not be nearly as big as what we're seeing right now," she said. 

Emission reductions from personal choices are less significant. However Hayhoe thinks there are still lessons to be learned, including the importance of pushing industry toward clean energy sources.

"I think that this pandemic really emphasizes the fact that everything is connected," she said.

How climate change could affect COVID-19

While it's still unclear whether this pandemic has been shaped by a warming climate, previous studies have shown that one of the side effects of climate change has been an increase in infectious diseases like influenza. 

Change is possible when we realize what's on the line.- Katharine Hayhoe, Canadian climate scientist

"We do know that climate change is affecting influenza in general. And of course this is a form of influenza," said Hayhoe. "It's making our seasons longer, which gives the viruses more time to mutate. As climate changes too, in a warmer world, there's some indication that our immune system might become less robust so we're more likely to get it."

Hayhoe also points to studies from during the SARS outbreak in 2003 that showed air pollution made people more vulnerable to viruses.

"They found that people who lived in polluted areas who were infected were twice as likely to die from it as people who lived in areas that were not polluted," she said. "So our actions have consequences and what this is highlighting is that our choices matter in every aspect of our lives."

Pollution is down in other ways. Clear waters in Venice's Grand Canal near the Rialto Bridge on March 18, are a result of the stoppage of motorboat traffic, following the country's lockdown within the new coronavirus crisis. (Andrea Pattaro/AFP/Getty Images)

However, climate change isn't solely to blame for this pandemic. Diseases spread by vectors such as ticks, and mosquitoes do get worse because climate change increases their range northward. COVID-19, however, is spread by humans, and our range isn't limited by climate.

Lessons to be learned 

Hayhoe hopes that this crisis strengthens the public's trust in science, and shows that we can all make changes to protect ourselves and our communities from threats.

"I'm hoping that it actually shows us that change is possible when we realize what's on the line," said Hayhoe.

"We all want the same thing: our health, our friends, and our family, and our loved ones, our community, our city, our province, and our country. When it all comes down to it, that's what matters. 

"That's what coronavirus threatens. And that's exactly what's at risk from climate change too."

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz