Will Environmental Changes Resulting from the Coronavirus Last?


    03 May 2020

    The coronavirus crisis has resulted in major drops in pollution across the world. Environmental groups welcome this change. But, some experts warn that pollution is likely to return to levels before the crisis once life returns to normal.

    Skies have been clearer in cities from New York to Paris to Beijing as governments closed businesses and schools and issued stay-at-home orders.

    Satellite data shows nitrogen dioxide has dropped about 30 percent in parts of the Northeast United States compared to the previous five years. Nitrogen dioxide is a major form of air pollution.

    Michelle Manion is an economist with the U.S.-based World Resources Institute. On a recent day in Boston, Massachusetts, she noted that the air was so clear that she could read the letters on top of the Prudential building, a well-known city structure.

    A woman enjoys the sun on her balcony as the Eiffel Tower is clearly seen in the background during the nationwide confinement to counter the conoravirus in Saint-Cloud, west of Paris, Wednesday, April 22, 2020. Air pollution has fallen in Paris in respons
    A woman enjoys the sun on her balcony as the Eiffel Tower is clearly seen in the background during the nationwide confinement to counter the conoravirus in Saint-Cloud, west of Paris, Wednesday, April 22, 2020. Air pollution has fallen in Paris in respons

    "I've never been able to do that," Manion told VOA. "It's really amazing."

    Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker began ordering schools and businesses to close on March 24. Since then, traffic on area roads has been cut by about two-thirds. "People are not commuting," Manion said. "It's a huge difference."

    Large drops in road traffic and air travel have greatly reduced oil demand worldwide. The United States uses more oil than any other country. But, U.S. demand fell 31 percent below average for January to mid-March, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported.

    Drops in production for fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas may lower pollution emissions by 5.5 percent this year, the British climate research website Carbon Brief predicts. That would be the largest reduction ever by far – more than four times the decrease during the 2008-2009 Great Recession.

    But some experts say such reductions are not likely to last. "The general expectation is that most of this will pick up once the crisis is over," Michael Gerrard told VOA. He is director of the Saban Center for Climate Change Law at New York's Columbia University.

    Satellite images have shown recent rises in air pollution in China, which reopened some industries after reporting the spread of the new coronavirus had slowed.

    The coronavirus crisis has also affected renewable energy companies. BloombergNEF (BNEF), an energy research organization, recently lowered its 2020 estimate for new wind power construction worldwide by 12 percent. The organization's estimate for solar power was cut by eight percent.

    In addition, investment in renewable energy is low and electric vehicle sales are down 40 percent compared to last year. But Gerrard says those drops are likely temporary.

    "The cost of building solar and wind has plummeted so much in recent years that it's highly competitive. It's really often outbidding fossil fuels," Gerrard said. "That hasn't changed. We've seen a slowdown in the construction. But I think that should pick up once people are fully back to work."

    However, BloombergNEF's estimates for renewable energy expansion show the world falling short of climate change targets set by the 2015 United Nations Paris agreement. A main goal of that agreement is to keep Earth from warming more than two degrees Celsius.

    Logan Goldie-Scot is BNEF's head of clean energy. He told VOA that the deeper the economic damage is from the coronavirus, the more difficult it will be for the world to reach the U.N. target.

    "If it ends up delaying or making it harder to finance and build renewable energy projects, then this will make what was already a challenge even harder," Goldie-Scot said.

    I'm Bryan Lynn.

    Steve Baragona reported this story for VOA News. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

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    Words in This Story

    commute v. regularly travel between home and work

    emission n. the act of releasing gas, heat, light, etc. out into the air

    renewable adj. any naturally occurring kind of energy, such as sunlight or wind

    plummetv. to fall very quickly in amount or value

    outbid v. to offer and pay more for something than someone else

    challenge n. something that is difficult and that tests someone's ability or determination