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, planting trees, or cleaning up a park. 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. "The pandemic is making a lot of people re-evaluate priorities. We see that it’s absolutely essential to take care of both people and nature, that our wellbeing is linked," Dr. Kimberly Nicholas, a researcher at the Lund University Center for Sustainability Studies, told Refinery29.
For the masses, movement, in general, has 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. No commute translates to a huge reduction in driving. And, for the 50% of Americans 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.
In the case of New York, over 90% of its ridership is no longer swiping their Metro Cards. "I can imagine people rethinking where they live, work, and go to school to reduce travel time, and in redesigning neighborhoods to meet the needs of humans, not cars," Nicholas continued. "We also see how important it is to have access to nature and green spaces." 
"Right now, people are burning less fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas," Nicholas explained. "We are seeing that reduced fossil fuel pollution has both immediate health benefits in terms of better air quality, and longer-term climate benefits from reduced global heating. Fossil fuels cause the majority of short-lasting air pollution like fine particulate matter that harms lung health."
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.

More from US News

R29 Original Series