How Has the Coronavirus Shutdown Affected the Environment?


Rob Lempert, Principal Researcher

How has the coronavirus shutdown affected the environment?

In the short term, we should see some very significant reductions in greenhouse gases. We don't have an exact number yet, but during the first year of the Great Recession, there was about a 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Then there's local air pollution—in China, it's been estimated that tens of thousands of lives were saved by their economic shutdown due to cleaner air during that period.

The most significant environmental impacts, however, are going to be in the longer term. It may affect how people travel in the future. People may fly less, but they may drive long distances more often. People may work from home, so there will be less commuting. They may avoid crowded places, which will affect the density of development and where they choose to live. It may affect the extent to which globalization continues.

The big question is whether we're going to head in positive or negative directions. The government will be investing tremendous amounts of money in restarting the economy. Does that money get invested in emissions-heavy industries and transportation systems? Or is it invested in greener energy and transportation systems?

For climate change, we know we need significant transformations to address this problem, and we know that societal shocks can often lead to transformations. Having lived through this current systemic risk of coronavirus, will people take that experience and apply it to another potential systemic risk like climate change?

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