COVID Clean Air Benefits Prove to Be Short-Lived

by Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer

The positive environmental impact of the COVID-19 pandemic “prove short-lived,” Rebecca Beitsch reported for the Hill this week. While emissions took a “massive drop a few months ago,” according to Beitsch they are now “within 5 percent of what they were around the same time last year.” 

Professor Corinne Le Quéré at the UK’s University of East Anglia told The Hill, “We just published a paper that looks at how much COVID would reduce climate change and the effect is 0.01 degrees Celsius, so it’s actually essentially nothing.” 

Why This Matters: There is a “popular notion” the environment will prove a silver lining in COVID-19. But the facts speak for itself: it isn’t. Rather than trying to mold a global pandemic into a potential positive, we should instead work to push for a massive green investment package. This, as experts contended, is the “only way to alleviate the impact of COVID-19 on the economy while transitioning the U.S. to cleaner sources of energy that will reduce emissions.” 

An Illusion of Hope?

Shortly after lockdown, air conditions seemed to improve in many cities. Take New Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world. There, the smog was “replaced by blue skies.” Elsewhere, the “Himalayan mountain chain [became] visible from parts of northern India for the first time in 30 years,” reported Physics World

Many hailed this as an environmental breakthrough. However, as Kate Ravilious asserted, this is a “complicated connection.” As Richard Allan, a climate scientist at the UK’s University of Reading, said, “Large-scale reductions in pollution due to COVID-19 will alter the heating patterns across the globe, particularly in South Asia, Europe, and North America, and it is plausible that this will influence weather systems.”  However, he conceded, “But isolating this effect from the chaotic natural fluctuations in weather may be impossible.”

Back to Business: But it’s not only difficult-to-parse scientific changes that make this positive connection between COVID and air pollution tenuous. Rather, as Le Quéré told the Hill, there is no long-term behavioral change. “As soon as confinement ended, we’ve gone back in the car mostly, and there those emissions have come back up very close to where they were.” 

Stanford environmental scientist Rob Jackson echoed this, saying, “We’re focusing on a relatively small drop in this year’s emissions compared to the flood of emissions we’ll still release this year into the atmosphere. We need to be close to zero and we’ll still be well over 30 billion tons.” 

The best way to fix this, experts assert, is an investment in green technology. “We need it now for batteries and electric cars and hydrogen,” Le Quéré explained to the Hill. “They would benefit from a big one-time investment to push the technology forward in a way that would cut the price drastically, and then they’re on their own, which would be fantastic.

This is also why numerous nations have called for a “green recovery” from the COVID-19 pandemic–Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden notably incorporated the notion into his climate and COVID recovery plan. As cities around the world caught a glimpse of what they might look like without the externalities of air and water pollution associated with fossil fuels, it has bolstered support for better public transit and electrification. However, leaders must commit to such investments and be held accountable for failure to follow through. 


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