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When the COVID-19 pandemic first started, the halt of travel helped to quickly lower carbon emissions from transportation and brought hope to the climate action community. Satellite mages of Italy and China’s decreasing air pollution were some of the first shared with the world as these countries were the first to experience major outbreaks and lockdowns. Since then, global demand for energy has fallen steadily. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that the world will use 6% less energy this year – equivalent to losing the entire energy demand of India. Although the pandemic has potentially helped to slow the effects of climate change and global temperature increases, there is still lots to do to ensure that our society builds a resilient climate that is equitable and helps protect the health of ALL individuals, environments, communities, and nations.

One negative side effect has been the widespread use of single-use plastics for masks and gloves in order to improve health and

1. (Photograph: Guardian Visuals / ESA satellite data) Pollution levels in China in 2019, left, and 2020, right.

safety measures. As restaurants began prioritizing takeout orders only, the use of plastic utensils, cups, and Styrofoam containers increased immensely, and all of this will be heading to the landfills. Although many new sustainable and reusable products have entered the market in the past few years to curb single-use plastics, it is imperative that individuals do not let the necessary safety precautions change their habits back, and that society’s demand for sustainable products continues after the pandemic.

On a positive note, the drop in CO2 emissions at the rates seen this year has not occurred from any other war, pandemic, or financial crash before in history. Yet rates have fallen at different levels depending on the country and city. For example, when comparing New York City and Paris, NYC experienced an emissions’ decrease of only 10% contrasted to Paris’ 72% decline. The changes due to COVID-19 have mobilized many scientists and climate activists to rethink and strategize new ways to continue to decrease emissions. Professor Róisín Commane from Columbia University in NYC told BBC, “We [NYC] are still emitting more than 80% of our previous CO2 emissions. That is a massive number. So personal behaviour really isn’t going to fix the carbon emission problem. We need a systematic change in how energy is generated and transmitted.” As the majority of NYC’s energy comes from large fuel power plants within the city, compared to France’s major nuclear energy sources, the pandemic has revealed that governments must take critical action to ensure that carbon emissions do not spike up again as nations reopen.

Many governments, whether at local, state, or national levels, have shown unprecedented action in responding to the current

2. An Ipsos Mori survey in April 2020 asked 28,029 adults whether they agreed with the question: in the long term, climate change is as serious a crisis as COVID-19

public health crisis and prioritizing the health and safety of individuals over the health of the economy. The same must be done in responding to the climate crisis. A survey completed by Ipsos shows that across the world 71% of adult individuals found that the climate crisis was as serious as the COVID-19 health crisis. Public pressure must continue to build in order to urge governments to make systemic changes such as switching to clean renewable energy sources, making carless cities, and implementing carbon taxes to mobilize a green economy during recovery.

As we consider how we will ‘build back better’ from COVID-19 we must recognize the climate imperative and the need to incorporate climate action into every recovery plan in order to move forward into a more resilient society.


Sources and Further Reading:

IEA: Global Energy Review

Climate change and coronavirus: Five charts about the biggest carbon crash

Coronavirus pandemic leading to huge drop in air pollution

Has Covid-19 brought us closer to tackling climate change?

Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement