Is Social Distancing & Staying At Home Actually Impacting Climate Change?

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images.
Earth Day 2020 is taking on a very different tone than anyone anticipated. In years past, we would have been encouraged to get outside, bring friends, and participate in a community-minded group activity such as cleaning up a beach or planting trees. This year, we might take an extra moment to appreciate springtime as we go out for an essential grocery trip or socially-distanced walk.
As millions around the world stay home to reduce the impact of the coronavirus, it can be hard to imagine celebrating the Earth while so many people are stuck indoors; however, by being homebound, we inadvertently reduced the impact we have on the environment in a major way.
Since many major cities around the world are in some form of lockdown, people have significantly reduced how much they drive, more people are working from home, and general consumption habits have drastically changed. For the masses, movement in general have translated to the biggest emissions changes. Carbon monoxide and other gas emissions are markedly lower. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates U.S. emissions from gas and energy use could drop more than 7% in 2020. These numbers are similar to a 2009 decline during the recession. 
The reduction of an individual’s carbon footprint widely varies depending on where they live. Fifty percent of Americans live in suburbs or rural areas reports the New York Times. In Canada, of the 80% of us who live in or near large cities, most live in the suburbs. No commute translates to a huge reduction in driving. And, for those who live in urban areas, the majority use public transportation a reduction in train and bus schedules to meet the needs of essential workers has also impacted everything from emissions to waste production outdoors.
But, how is this actually impacting the greater movement of combating climate change? In some places, the changes are already noticeable. Los Angeles, which has been under strict lockdown orders with the rest of the state since March 19, reported some of the cleanest air of any major city in the world. It is the longest stretch of “good” air quality the Environmental Protection Agency has reported in Los Angeles since 1995. In Venice, Italy, satellite photos show drastically clearer water and better air quality now that the canals are less trafficked. According to researchers in New York, CO2, mainly from cars, is down 50% compared to this time last year. 
Still, this isn’t a perfect system. There are trade-offs. People may be driving and flying less, but they are using more electricity and gas at home. Those who would normally turn down their thermostats and turn the lights off while they are at the office are now keeping them on as their homes become their offices which translates to more greenhouse gas emissions. This is unlikely to overshadow the gains made in the overall impact of lack of commuting and the general slowdown of the economy.
This isn’t the first time that global disasters have translated to a temporary decline in carbon emissions, either. In 2008, the recession caused a temporary dip in emissions as well, reports the Scientific American. This was short-lived. Afterward, emissions shot up by 5% as a result of stimulus spending that increased the use of fossil fuel. The same could be said for our current decline in emissions. Any significant change we see now could possibly be offset depending on how world governments decide to reinvigorate their economies as they lift quarantine sanctions.

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