Sustainable travel

How much has COVID-19 reduced carbon emissions?

If you are into sustainability and climate change, you probably know that COVID-19 has reduced carbon emissions. But how much? Has it really made that much of an impact? This article will explore these questions with the latest data.

Our planet is benefitting from COVID-19

At the time of writing this article, there are 3.5million cases of coronavirus around the world. COVID-19 has killed 250,000 people and the global trend is still on the rise. Even if the virus didn’t infect you directly, your life has been changed by it. On the 23rd March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered people to leave their homes only under very limited purposes. He also gave powers to the police to enforce the new rules through fines and dispersing gatherings. The lockdown is affecting all aspects of our lives, limiting our freedom in a way we wouldn’t have imagined.

But there’s a clear winner in these challenging times, and it’s not the virus – it’s our planet. Almost a third of the global population is under some sort of lockdown. Most countries have closed their borders and travel is banned all over the globe. We may be suffering from this, but we are the only ones. The rest of the planet – including our land, oceans and animals – is benefitting from this situation.

You’ve probably watched videos of whales and dolphins closer to the coast than usual. The world is somehow going back to its natural state. Whether we like it or not, human beings are the most destructive species on Earth. The video below from Steve Cutts exemplifies very well how we’ve transformed our planet, not always for the better.

Great challenges bring great opportunities

By now, we are quite used to see the negative numbers associated with COVID-19, including infected cases and deaths. It’s time to start looking also at the positive numbers. Because we can learn from this global pandemic to improve the way we live. The Dalai Lama once said:

Whenever there is a challenge, there’s also an opportunity to face it, to demonstrate and develop our will and determination.

The truth is, the greatest opportunities generally arise from the greatest challenges. Therefore, we can use this challenge as an opportunity to tackle global issues, like plastic pollution and carbon emissions. Virtually everybody is working from home. Flights are cancelled. Industries, shops and bars are closed. Consumerism is dipping down.

park closed due to covid-19

COVID-19 has reduced carbon emissions in the short term

A research carried out by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air found that the UK has reduced 36% of NO2 levels and 10% PM10 levels due to the lockdown. They found that Portugal has been the European country with the highest reduction in air contaminants during the lockdown, with over 50% reduction for both NO2 and PM10 levels. They estimated that the reduction in air pollutants has avoided 11,000 deaths related to air pollution across Europe. Out of those, 1,752 would have been in the UK. Of course, this number doesn’t compare to the number of deaths that the COVID-19 has caused, but we can see the positive impact in there.

According to London City Hall, nitrogen dioxide pollution in central London is down 40 per cent on average, compared to last year. It is clear that COVID-19 is reducing carbon emissions. But we’ve only looked at the short-term so far. However, if you are into sustainability, carbon emissions and climate change, you know that we need to think long-term. They say that history repeats itself, so it’s important to learn from past mistakes. And we don’t need to go too far in the past to find a similar scenario.

COVID-19 may not reduce carbon emissions in the long term

Back in the financial crash of 2008 and 2009, global emissions dropped by 1.3% during that period. However, right after the financial crisis, CO2 emissions grew rapidly. The crash led people to limit their spending during 2008-09 due to low wages. But shortly after, carbon emissions grew by 5.1% due to the governments’ incentives for production and spending. This, together with a lack of innovation, led to a future without long-term impact from the temporary reduction of carbon emissions.

Today, we are living in a similar situation. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development recently estimated that, even with the COVID-19 crisis, the global GDP for 2020 will still grow a 2.4%. With this estimate, it is predicted that global carbon emissions may drop by 0.3%. As we can see, this reduction is much lower than the one caused by the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. This is no good news for the environment and climate change.

You may be thinking, ‘how’s that even possible if there are no flights at all right now?’ Well, you may be surprised to know that aviation accounts for just 11% of the carbon emissions within the transportation sector, and only 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. Therefore, if we really want to tackle climate change, there’s much more to do than just reducing the number of flights. Having said that, it is true that sustainable travel, in general, plays a key role in achieving a carbon-neutral future.

Covid-19 reduced carbon emissions flights cancelled

How can we reduce even more emissions thanks to COVID-19?

Governments are already planning and implementing economic stimulus measures. We are facing the risk of repeating the history of the 2008 financial crisis. If that happens, we may not see reduced carbon emissions after the COVID-19 pandemic. But as the Dalai Lama said, we can use this great challenge as a great opportunity.

Here are some opportunities that the coronavirus will give us. And they all contribute towards reducing carbon emissions:

  • Work effectively from home and hold meetings remotely, eliminating or reducing commutes and transport emissions.
  • Learn to enjoy a simpler life, spending more time at home with our loved ones, reducing compulsive consumerism.
  • Stop buying so many clothes, therefore contributing to slow fashion and fewer carbon emissions from factories.

What other opportunities have you learnt from COVID-19 that could help us reduce carbon emissions? Share them in the comments below!

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