Shelter-in-Place: The Key to Climate Change?

By: Atara Neugroschl  |  May 12, 2020

By Atara Neugroschl, Staff Writer

Over the past couple of months, factories have closed their doors, air and sea travel have come to a halt, and people have remained home instead of commuting to work and school. However, amidst all the chaos and disaster, there may be a silver lining: the positive effect this virus may play on the environment.

With the reduction in travel and industry, there has been a significant decrease in the emission of greenhouse gases. Greenhouses gases, such as carbon dioxide, are gases released from the burning of fossil fuels, which have been cited as the largest cause of global warming. While there is generally an annual increase in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the environment, scientists have predicted an 8% decrease in 2020. This decline in fossil fuel emissions can also be seen on a smaller scale when analyzing the statistics of individual countries. According to Carbon Brief, a prominent environmental group, in February alone China’s carbon dioxide emissions decreased by 25%, totaling 200 million tons of carbon dioxide. A similar pattern can be seen in New York City. Due to shelter-in-place laws and the reduction of cars driving throughout the city, New York’s carbon monoxide emissions have decreased by 50%.

Not only are fewer greenhouse gases being released into the environment, but people are consuming less energy. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), energy consumption is predicted to drop by 6% in 2020, seven times the amount it fell during the 2008 recession. While 6% seems like a small decrease, this number is unprecedented. It is equivalent to the amount of energy consumed by India, the third-largest energy-consuming country in the world. The IEA also reported an increase in renewable energy sources, such as wind and sun.

While these statistics seem like the changes environmental advocates have been waiting for, we are forced to ask about the long-term effects of these shifts. Unfortunately, the positive environmental effects seem to be limited to the short-term. While carbon dioxide emission levels have decreased, carbon dioxide concentration and the warming of the planet has remained stagnant. These numbers are based on the total amount of carbon dioxide culminating in the environment, which according to Carbon Brief, will require ten years with an 8% decrease in carbon dioxide emissions, to achieve. Although 2020 has had a lower drop in temporary greenhouse gas emissions, if it follows the trend of other recessions, gas emissions will increase with the recovery of the economy.

Some argue that these new changes will be worse for the environment and climate change. The inability to go to work has caused the collapse of the economy along with significant budget cuts from the government, as they must now reallocate their funds towards health initiatives and economic stimulus programs. To fund their new pandemic-related programs, states have already begun taking money away from much-needed climate resilience projects — initiatives designed to protect and prevent future climate-related disasters. For example, Miami Beach, an area often hit with hurricanes, is in the process of raising its road to prevent flooding. This project, however, is now in limbo, with the city losing a quarter of its revenue due to lack of tourism. Similarly, Washington State has already taken $50 million away from resilience projects to fund other, more immediate, needs. Not only have currently projects been affected, but future initiatives have been put on pause. With the inability to travel to laboratories, environmental scientists have been unable to continue their research, affecting the future of climate-related knowledge and data.

Despite the negative impacts the pandemic has on climate change, many people remain optimistic. Officials have considered using climate resilience projects as a means of boosting the economy, creating jobs for some of the millions of Americans recently filing for unemployment. Others see this as the wake-up-call needed to alert the world to the seriousness of climate change. For years, environmentalists have warned that an invisible, but dangerous, killer is coming and it will forever change our lives. Now, one has come. Hopefully, this will make clear to the world that such a thing is possible and will spark the change necessary to prevent climate change from being as destructive as COVID-19.