Coronavirus-related measures have caused a drop in greenhouse gas emissions, bringing little respite to planet Earth. Here's how:

China's NO2 emissions in January (left) and February this year (right).
China's NO2 emissions in January (left) and February this year (right). (NASA)

The novel coronavirus may have temporarily halted global activity on a mass level as countries take extraordinary measures to halt the pandemic, but has it accidentally helped improve the planet's condition? At least for a while, scientists and climate experts say.

Since being first detected in China's Wuhan in November, the pandemic has already had a dramatic impact on the air quality of one of the world's biggest emitters of pollutants. Beijing locked down affected cities, shut down factories, and prevented travel.

"NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) pollution monitoring satellites have detected significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China. There is evidence that the change is at least partly related to the economic slowdown following the outbreak of coronavirus," NASA Earth Observatory reported. 

NASA scientists said the reduction in NO2 — a dangerous pollutant — was first apparent near Wuhan city, "but eventually spread across the country."

Chinese CO2 emissions fell sharply too, according to Finland's Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, which said the carbon dioxide emissions fell by a quarter, or an estimated 200 million tonnes in the four weeks to March 1.

"The measures to contain coronavirus have resulted in reductions of 15 percent to 40 percent in output across key industrial sectors," Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst at the centre said. 

"This is likely to have wiped out a quarter or more of the country's CO2 emissions over the past four weeks."

The virus has spread to more than 120 countries, killing nearly 4,300 with more than 118,000 confirmed cases.

As more nations follow China's measures — by halting flights and trains, shutting schools and businesses, suspending crowd-pulling sports and cultural activities —  such environmental impacts could show up around the globe. 

NASA maps showing NO2 values over Wuhan during January and February.
NASA maps showing NO2 values over Wuhan during January and February. (NASA)

Opportunity in crisis?

And this is where many are seeing an opportunity, albeit one which is stronger if its taken in small but incremental steps.

"A downturn in global fossil fuel use has been prompted by curtailments of travel and social gatherings in response to the spread of the coronavirus," Ralph Franklin Keeling, a geochemist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography wrote on his Twitter feed.

But the fossil fuel use, he said, would have to decline by about 10 percent around the world and "would need to be sustained for a year to show up clearly in CO2 levels."

That's hasn't happened in the last many decades despite 1970s energy shocks, the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the 2008 economic downturn.

Also, the UN climate goal of reducing the carbon footprint by 50 percent by 2030 and reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 will be too big a feat for the coronavirus response to achieve. 

Since CO2 levels resume quickly when normal economic activity begins, Keeling said, "If there is any benefit of the coronavirus event in terms of slowing the pace of climate change, it could be in the changing of people's travel and work habits in ways that lead to sustained reductions in fossil fuel use.

Others see the response to the global pandemic bringing up a behavioural change that can help somehow. 

"What we're witnessing is consumer demand changing radically within a matter of weeks, driven by the very primal instinct for survival. This is the kind of behavioural change for which climate activists have been campaigning, almost completely unsuccessfully, for years," said John Atcheson, CEO of Stuffstr, a startup that has adopted a sustainability approach in the apparel industry by allowing customers to sell back their unwanted clothing to stores for credits.

"Finally, we’re taking crisis action, even if it isn't in direct response to the threat Greta Thunberg has been addressing so eloquently."

What about the oil price decline?

In the midst of coronavirus measures, there has been a steep decline in oil prices, sparked by Saudi Arabia's price war with Russia. 

This decline in oil prices combined with what environmentalists call "retaliatory pollutions" may hamper decarbonisation of the planet.

"After the coronavirus calms down, it is quite likely we will observe a round of so-called 'retaliatory pollutions' — factories maximising production to compensate for their losses during the shutdown period," said Li Shuo, a policy adviser for Greenpeace China.

"This is a tested and proven pattern."

Changed social attitudes could make it hard for politicians to dismiss climate concerns, Keith Skeoch, chief executive of Standard Life Aberdeen, said. "But low oil prices will have some influence."

"Cheap oil and cheap petrol probably do make (it), from a consumer's perspective, potentially a little bit more difficult to decarbonise,” Skeoch said.

Investors will also watch if any government relief packages encourage more high-emitting projects thus dampening the decarbonisation process with it. 

Source: TRT World