Countries around the world are enforcing lockdowns with factories shut down, businesses closed, traffic off the roads, air travel reduced and the impact of these measures on the environment is already noticeable.
In China, nitrogen dioxide emissions, produced by cars, factories and power plants, have fallen by more than 40 per cent over many of the country’s cities under lockdown. Coal consumption at power plants has fallen by 36 per cent and restrictions have led to a 25 per cent drop in energy use and carbon emissions.In northern Italy nitrogen dioxide emissions have fallen by an average of 10 per cent per week since mid-February.
Pollution levels in the UK have also fallen since strict new measures to halt the spread of the virus were introduced.
Besides a drop in nitrogen dioxide, dirty particulate matter (PM2.5) emitted by vehicles has reduced significantly. “In London, for example, PM2.5 is noticeably lower than would be expected for this time of year at the roadside,” according to Alastair Lewis, professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of York.
Unfortunately, according to Ian Colbeck, professor of environmental science at the University of Essex the reduction in global emissions will most likely be temporary.
“Emissions tend to bounce back fairly quickly shortly after a crisis ends,” he said. “Expect to see short-term impacts on energy and emissions disappear as governments introduce stimulus packages to increase industrial output at the end of the pandemic. Following the global financial crash in 2008-09, carbon emissions increased by 5 per cent as a result of such stimulus.”
Dr Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), has warned that the pandemic could stall global efforts to transition towards clean energy.
“We should not allow today’s crisis to compromise our efforts to tackle the world’s inescapable challenge,” he said in a statement.
According to Professor Martin Siegert, co-director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College Londonthe transition to a low-carbon economy requires trillions of pounds of investment. If it is all spent on managing the coronavirus outbreak, “we will not have the financial muscle to invest in a low-carbon future”, he said.
However, like many other environmental experts he hopes that the pandemic presents an unprecedented opportunity to curb global emissions, explaining that there is “ an amazing opportunity to shape the economy in a slightly different way”