Has the COVID-19 economic slowdown affected the climate?
Dear EarthTalk: Given the economic slowdown around the world due to the coronavirus in 2020, was there a positive impact on climate change?
— M. Stiles, Meriden, Conn.
The coronavirus pandemic has certainly led to a decrease in industrial activity and resulting greenhouse gas emissions during its reign over the planet in 2020. A recent study by German researchers calculated that global carbon dioxide emissions fell by about 8% over the past year. While this is no doubt a good result from an otherwise bad situation, the researchers warn it represents nothing but a small drop in the bucket compared to what we still need to accomplish — even bigger annual emissions drops every year for decades to come — to avert cataclysmic climate change.
Despite the drop in emissions over this past year, 2020 will likely go down in history as the year things started to really accelerate with regard to climate change’s effects. Recent increases in both the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events are consequences of global climate change.
In 2020, extreme weather events plagued people around the world amid the pandemic. In the U.S. alone, Americans witnessed orange skies clouded with smoke and a number of powerful hurricanes coming from the Atlantic. Globally, there have been record high average temperatures, double the activity of a normal hurricane season, the hottest temperature ever reliably recorded in human history (54ºC), the most costly damages from flooding to date in China, record low Arctic sea ice and the strongest tropical cyclone to hit land that has ever been recorded (Super Typhoon Goni). These abnormally extreme weather events are all indicators of the accelerating effects of climate change on our planet.
Even though climate change continues to worsen, in small ways all over the world nature has taken this economic slowdown as a chance to breathe. For example, the murky waters of Venice’s canals became clearer than they had been in decades — and sea life even returned to the city’s urban waterways.
While global warming has not stopped because of the global pandemic, we have learned that Mother Nature responds positively to our improved behavior (even when not intended), which gives environmental advocates hope to keep on working. It’s now up to every one of us to make significant changes in our own orbits if we hope to mitigate and reverse the effects of climate change.