Coronavirus Has Caused a Drop in Emissions. Don't Celebrate Yet

Even though air pollution over China, the world’s largest emitter, has dropped substantially, anything that causes human death is counterproductive to climate justice.
A flight attendant walking pass empty check-in counters at Hong Kong International Airport on February 22
The economic slowdown caused by the reductions in aviation industries has led to stark drops in carbon emissions. Photo by Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto via Getty Images
tipping point callout
Tipping Point covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has dramatically altered the daily lives of almost every person in the world. To contain the disease—which according to Johns Hopkins University data has infected more than 193,000 and killed more than 7,800 people globally—countries and communities have taken drastic measures, mainly lockdowns of entire regions and cities, as well as social distancing that some scientists say may need to last a year or more.


The economic slowdown caused by the reduction in aviation industries, as well as reduced work travel as people are shuttered in their homes, has led to stark drops in carbon emissions and air pollution.

So far, the countries that have seen the steepest drop in emissions are the ones who have been most affected by the pandemic. The coronavirus eliminated at least a quarter of China’s greenhouse gas emissions in two weeks during mid-February, the Independent reported. Satellite images of the country from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) showed a shocking drop in nitrogen dioxide, a noxious gas from vehicles, power plants, and factories.

In Italy, where COVID-19 has infected more than 31,000 people and killed more than 2,500, nitrogen dioxide levels have decreased substantially between January 1 and March 11, according to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Copernicus Sentinel-5p satellite.

The ESA found that this reduction was particularly pronounced in northern Italy, the epicentre of the outbreak in the country.

“Although there could be slight variation in the data due to cloud cover and changing weather, we are very confident that the reduction in emissions that we can see coincides with the lockdown in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities,” said Claus Zehner, the ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P mission manager, in a statement.

For some concerned with the devastating impacts of the climate crisis, this drop in emissions may seem like cause for celebration, or at least a silver lining in a gloomy cloud.


But it’s not.

This drop is short-term. Studies have shown that there was a 5.9 percent increase in global carbon emissions after the 2008 financial crisis. Drops in carbon emissions are common after global crises; they occurred during the 1918 Spanish Flu, The Great Depression (1929-1939), and the 1970s Energy Shocks and Iranian Revolution. But carbon emissions have risen at a terrifyingly exponential rate despite those drops.

Already, China is planning to relax environmental rules to allow factories idled during the epidemic to get back up to speed, which will actually make China’s air pollution much worse.

Beyond all of that, the coronavirus is expected to kill countless numbers of people. Anything that causes human death is counterintuitive to the climate justice movement.

Instead of celebrating these drops in emissions, we should all take this moment to consider making some of these measures permanent: reduce air travel, telecommute, have basic human rights like housing, healthcare, and food provided by the state. Not only will they result in long-term emissions reduction, but they will bring greater equity to all people. And that is the goal of climate justice: humans collaborating to make large-scale change to save one other.

"Radical rapid change on a global scale is possible"

Maggie Clifford, a PhD student in climate literacy and communications at American University in Washington, D.C., said the way people are coming together to help at-risk populations gives her hope.


“There is a hopeful quality to how a lot of people are responding to the pandemic,” she told VICE. “They’re saying, ‘I'm going to do this for the benefit of others who are immunocompromised or disabled or elderly.’ There is an element of beauty there.”

Clifford said there are a number of ways the pandemic can “help us gain empirical evidence that radical rapid change on a global scale is possible.” But that requires seeing the urgency that the climate crisis poses, and the necessity of the recent changes to combating that crisis.

Dr. Tracey Ritchie, an environmental educator based in Washington, D.C., told VICE that there have been “drastic overnight behaviour changes put in place for this pandemic because people are seeing that the situation is extremely urgent, extremely fatal, and spreading rapidly.”

But Ritchie said it’s been “frustrating” to see that people don’t regard the climate crisis with a similar sense of urgency and concern.

For Ritchie, it’s crucial that people “take some of these new realities and translate them into better climate action”—while keeping accessibility and equity at the forefront of their minds.

There is a lot of overlap, Ritchie stressed, between the communities most vulnerable to the climate crisis and the communities most vulnerable to the coronavirus. For example, disabled people experience environmental ableism—like being denied straws or inhalers under the guise of climate activism—and are also most at-risk for dying of the coronavirus. Indigenous peoples are being hit by the coronavirus hard, with lack of access to healthcare or supplies, and they’re also often the most affected by the climate crisis.


For Zipporah Arielle, a writer and disability activist, it’s frustrating to see many of the accommodations they and other people with disabilities have been asking for only implemented when able-bodied people feel at risk. “Seeing disabled people as expendable enough to see this as a net positive ignores the other areas we could be targeting—ones that would require a sacrifice from non-disabled people,” she told VICE.

For the past few weeks, commuting has been reduced by allowing people to work from home, and our dependence on delivery services like Amazon lessened by helping out homebound neighbours with shopping and errands. These radical changes will not only help the climate crisis, but will improve the lives of people everywhere.

The World Health Organization’s director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that COVID-19 is the “defining global health crisis of our time.” The climate crisis, which will also lead to more catastrophic infectious diseases, is also the crisis of our time. Our response to COVID-19—how we treat each other, how we advocate for each other, how we come together to make systemic change—will not only determine how many lives we save from the coronavirus, but also how many lives we save from the crises yet to come.

Nylah Burton is a writer based in Washington D.C., who covers mental health, climate, and race. Follow her on Twitter.

Have a story for Tipping Point? Email