Silver Lining

While the coronavirus pandemic continues to exert a catastrophic toll on human life and the economy, it has wound up having an unintended benefit on the environment. An interactive map created by Earther vividly documents how governments’ efforts to check the virus’s spread — leading to a virtual shutdown in commuting, manufacturing and shipping — has resulted in a huge decline in global air pollution.

Relying on data from a European Space Agency satellite, the map charts the steep drop-off in emissions of nitrogen dioxide, a prime pollutant from the burning of fossil fuels, in all parts of the world affected by the pandemic, including the U.S. While extraneous factors, such as weather patterns, could affect the satellite images, they seem to confirm research by other scientists.

For example, Finnish researchers computed that restrictions imposed on manufacturing and other activities during a four-week period when the virus ravaged China contributed to a 25% decline in carbon dioxide emissions there over 2019 figures. In the U.S., the non-profit group Earth Economics charted the amount of particulate matter (tiny particles that contribute to air pollution) in New York and San Francisco over five recent days and compared it to last year’s data. The result: drops of 28% and almost 40%, respectively.     

Staggering as these findings may be, the virus’s short-term impacts on air quality are less important than the potential it offers for the future. “If we can think about how to prepare for climate change like a pandemic, maybe there will be a positive outcome to all of this,” says Christopher Jones, lead developer of the CoolClimate Network, a research consortium at the University of California, Berkeley.

However, climate scientists agree that achieving a “positive outcome” depends upon re-thinking our concept of “normal” once the coronavirus is vanquished. “As we move to restart these economies, we need to use this moment to think about what we value,” says Jacqueline Klopp, co-director of Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development. “Do we want to go back to the status quo, or do we want to tackle these big structural problems and restructure our economy and reduce emissions and pollution?”