The environmental impact of Covid-19 may be the only benefit received from the deadly virus. The United States currently emits more than 5,800 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), representing 19 percent of all global CO2 emissions despite our nation only making up 5 percent of the world’s population. Of these high emissions, 23 percent is due to transportation – cars, trucks, and airplanes. However, with shelter-in-place orders across the nation along with business and transportation closures, nitrogen and carbon levels in the United States have dropped drastically. Pollution levels in the atmosphere are typically highest during rush hour times in the morning and evening, however traffic has subsided, and rush hour is non-existent. Without the typical highway congestion, the New York Times states that traffic in Los Angeles is moving 53 times faster now than before receiving shelter-in-place orders. The number of cars crossing the Bay Bridge every day has fallen by 40 percent. Similarly, the number of cars that go into downtown Seattle for work has also fallen by 40 percent. In New York, carbon monoxide levels compared to the same time last year have reduced by 50 percent.
According to BBC, coal use in China fell by 40 percent since the last quarter of 2019, nitrogen dioxide levels dropped by 35 percent (60 percent in some cities), and the amount of “good air quality days” has risen 11.4 percent compared to the same time last year. Nitrogen dioxide levels fell 40 percent in Milan, Italy. Nitrogen dioxide levels in Madrid and Barcelona are at historic lows, dropping by 75 and 45 percent respectively since before the Covid lockdown. The reduction in air pollution is directly linked to Madrid and Barcelona’s 60 percent reduction in transportation.
As Covid-19 forces the economy towards a recession, overall greenhouse gas emissions might fall as well. In 2008, the economic crash led to a 1.3% overall decrease in emissions. Emissions, however, were higher than ever just two years later in 2010. It is unfortunate that it took a virus to lower pollution levels in the atmosphere, and it is important that we also recognize we cannot beat climate change with a virus. It will take more policy changes for these dips in emissions to have a lasting effect, but watching carbon and nitrogen levels drop is a step towards future possibilities combating climate change.