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Planet Earth in the Time of Pandemic

In Venice, Italy, large schools of fish can be seen swimming through the newly clear water of the city’s famous canals. In China’s Hubei Province, the average number of “good quality air days” increased 21.5% year-on-year for February, according to China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment. And in New York City, carbon monoxide emissions have recently dropped 50% from the same time last year. While the novel coronavirus causing Covid-19 has rapidly become a devastating pandemic for human populations around the globe (with more than 250,000 cases and 10,000 deaths as of this writing), the outbreak appears to mean something quite different for our climate and the millions of other species it sustains: a reprieve.

Major reductions in the vehicle exhaust pollutant nitrogen dioxide, confirmed in China and Italy by satellite data and other research, are indicative of overall decreases in air pollution in those countries and, it seems reasonable to expect, in others where similar restrictions on human activity continue to be enacted. According to a study by the Rhodium Group, “coal consumption by the six largest power plants in China has fallen over 40% since the last quarter of 2019.” A Carbon Brief analysis in mid-February concluded that China’s overall carbon dioxide emissions had been reduced by 25% to that point. And Professor Róisín Commane of Columbia University, whose research team quantified the reduction in carbon monoxide emissions in New York City, predicts “the smallest increase in May to May peak CO2 that we’ve had in the northern hemisphere since 2009, or even before.”

What does all this mean for the long-term future of the planet, and its climate? While positive environmental side effects could be viewed as a glimmer of good news amid the devastating human tragedy we are witnessing, the answer is likely to be complex. Much will depend on our response, particularly in terms of economic stimulus and evolving regulation. For instance, if stimulus funds are largely directed toward carbon-intensive industries like construction and transportation, as many were following the financial crisis of 2008-2009, carbon emissions could ultimately rise to higher levels than before the pandemic. (The increase following the Great Recession was more than 5%.) If existing regulatory progress toward a cleaner economy were also to be put aside, that problem would be compounded.

The response to date does include some worrying trends. The Fed’s announcement that it will shore up the junk-rated market by, among other things, buying high-yield exchange-traded funds (ETFs) has so far disproportionately benefited dirty energy. Last week, among the biggest beneficiaries of these moves included Halliburton Co, the infamous oil services company, and other junk-rated fossil fuel companies. And last month’s attempt by the House of Representatives to require carbon reductions and offsets for airlines receiving first-wave stimulus money was ultimately blocked, disappointing many environmentalists.

But further rounds of stimulus are almost certain, with new environmental opportunities attendant. If global governments focus even a modest measure of spending on generating economic activity through a clean energy transition, this time could start to look different than 2009. Many efficiency measures take only capital to implement, and the solar and wind energy industries are much more robust than they were ten years ago. Despite crashing oil prices, a Sustainalytics report suggests that the share prices of renewable energy firms have been largely unrelated to oil prices over the last five years. And with the economic fallout around Covid-19 forcing companies to look more closely at their supply chains, global corporations will have more opportunities to apply environmental screening and ESG requirements to their upstream partners.

For now, environmentally-conscious analysts are looking to China to see how stimulus measures will be implemented there. If efficiency and sustainability are an area of focus for the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the impact on carbon emissions could ultimately be positive. In that scenario, there is reason to hope that Europe might follow suit. And with the opportunity for new leadership in the US, an even more progressive scenario is not out of the question.

Today, our sole focus must be on helping our human family through this health crisis. But once we do, perhaps it isn’t too much to hope that the lessons we learn could be applied to another, slower-moving, but no less existential threat to the survival of our species and all the others we depend on.