The coronavirus is upending everything from aviation to the economy — and it's also having a big impact on the environment.
Some of those are positive — a big (albeit likely temporary) drop in CO2 emissions as factories shutter and the economy sputters — while others are negative — growing piles of possibly infected waste like tissues and old face masks.
Here are six ways coronavirus is already having an effect.
A drop in air pollution was first observed by NASA in China’s Hubei province, where the coronavirus outbreak began in December. The Chinese government on January 23 put Wuhan and other cities on lockdown to contain the virus, leading to a standstill for normal life.
“This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event,” Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard space flight centre, told the Guardian.
In Madrid this week, Spain’s Directorate General for Traffic registered a 14 percent drop in rush-hour traffic, El País reported. The European Commission last year referred the Spanish capital to court for failing to meet EU limits on air pollution designed to protect people’s health.
Marshall Burke, a researcher at Stanford University, calculated the improvements in air quality recorded in China may have saved the lives of 4,000 children under 5 years old and 73,000 adults over 70. Even more conservative estimates would put the number of lives saved at roughly 20 times the number of deaths from the virus directly.
“It seems clearly incorrect and foolhardy to conclude that pandemics are good for health ... But the calculation is perhaps a useful reminder of the often-hidden health consequences of the status quo,” Burke wrote in a blog post.
Slowing economic activity also drives down emissions — if only temporarily. As countries order the closedown of schools, shops and factories, emissions are expected to fall.
The last time carbon emissions fell was during the economic crisis in 2008-2009. But as the economy picked up, so did demand for coal and other fossil fuels — especially in China, the world’s largest emitter.
A study by specialist outlet Carbon Brief found that in China, carbon dioxide emissions have fallen by around 25 percent.
Another factor that could dampen emissions growth is lower oil demand.
The International Energy Agency said Monday that global oil demand is expected to decline this year “as the impact of the new coronavirus spreads around the world, constricting travel and broader economic activity.”
The pandemic affects energy markets more broadly, but oil markets are most severely hit by “dealing a heavy blow to demand for transport fuels,” especially in China, the world’s largest energy consumer, said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. “While the repercussions of the virus are spreading to other parts of the world, what happens in China will have major implications for global energy and oil markets.”
Europe — where industrial emissions have largely stagnated but transport emissions have gone up in recent years — might also experience a dip in emissions as more governments order lockdowns.
“Obviously there are almost certainly going to be further impacts on emissions,” said Simon Evans of Carbon Brief. However, he said an assessment for Europe would come at a later date since “the situation is fast moving and even in Italy the restrictions have only started very recently.”
But as more people choose to stay at home, demand for home entertainment could soar, driving up energy use.
Germany’s Deutsche Commercial Internet Exchange interconnection platform, or De-Cix, reported a record throughput of data: More than 9.1 terabits of data per second were transmitted Tuesday evening, according to De-Cix.
“Never before has so much data been exchanged at peak times at an Internet Exchange,” the Frankfurt-based company said in a press release. De-Cix added that the rise in internet traffic can be explained by both more people streaming videos as well as by an increase in searches for new information about the coronavirus.
Coffee chain Starbucks decided to stop accepting reusable cups from its customers — only serving drinks in disposable single-use cups that are not yet recyclable in a bid to prevent the spread of the virus.
There have also been warnings to err toward eating pre-packaged foods, for example at work functions — despite an effort by the European Food Safety Authority to reassure people that, so far, there is “no evidence that food is a likely source or route of transmission of the virus.”
Meanwhile, China is drowning under medical waste produced by hospitals including face masks and single-use tissues. In the city of Wuhan, the volume of medical waste is reported to have quadrupled to more than 200 tons a day. Single-use medical items that have been in contact with infected patients must be burned to prevent further contamination that could occur during recycling.
Madrid’s metro operator said ridership fell 35.8 percent on Wednesday compared to the week before. The Belgian government also advised people to avoid peak-hour travel, although Brussels’ STIB said it doesn’t yet have data available on any drop in riders.
A surge in working from home may lead to changes in people’s long-term habits or a loss of services in some (relatively) cleaner forms of transport.
At least those who do take public transport should find it cleaner. Berlin’s BVG won’t allow riders to buy tickets on-board its buses in a bid to reduce spread of germs; STIB promised cleaners will give special attention to handles and buttons, and Transport for London announced plans to roll out extra-strong anti-viral cleaning liquids.
Air traffic has taken a nosedive since the virus spread to Europe. Despite previous projections of growth, 67 million fewer passengers flew in the first three months of 2020 compared to the year before.
Policymakers and industry are still trying to figure out how much worse it will get, but airlines are canceling an increasing number of flights as the virus continues to spread and countries introduce travel restrictions.
Airline lobby IATA predicts the global industry could lose up to $113 billion this year. This inevitably means a dip in carbon emissions, but that will only last as long as the virus does.
With the virus consuming everybody’s attention, the climate issue has been crowded off the agenda. On Monday, the European Parliament opted to forgo a debate on the EU’s new Climate Law after the plenary session was shortened to minimize people’s exposure. Parliament President David Sassoli then quarantined himself for two weeks.
“Meetings are being canceled but important decisions should not be delayed,” said Anton Lazarus of the European Environmental Bureau. “The corona crisis cannot be allowed to slow down action to tackle climate and ecological crises.”
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg on Wednesday urged her followers via Instagram to shift the ongoing Fridays for Future protests into cyberspace.
When it comes to coronavirus, “We can’t solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis and we must unite behind experts and science,” she wrote. “This of course goes for all crises.”
Kalina Oroschakoff, Joshua Posaner, Saim Saeed, Louise Guillot, Laurenz Gehrke and Aitor Hernández-Morales contributed reporting.
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