Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Social Distancing Is Also Helping the Climate

A stretch of Interstate 8 is empty on March 15, 2020 in San Diego, California. The CDC called for the cancellation of events of 50 or more people for eight weeks to attempt to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images

As schools close, as workers are asked to stay home, and as concerts and sports events are put on hold in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that the World Health Organization has declared a pandemic, the practice of social distancing is having a collateral benefit — it's slowing the climate crisis.

Kimberly Nicholas, a researcher at the Lund University Center for Sustainability Studies in Sweden, told The New York Times that three common activities account for the largest sources of our carbon emissions. "Any time you can avoid getting on a plane, getting in a car or eating animal products, that's a substantial climate savings." Thanks to social distancing and travel restrictions, many people are not flying and have drastically reduced how much time they spend in cars.

Nichols authored a 2018 study about actions people can take to reduce emissions and is writing a book on the subject.

As E&E News pointed out, the rapidly spreading virus has caused massive dips in industrial activity and demand for oil. Experts estimate that carbon emissions have fallen by nearly one-fourth in China, which is the world's largest carbon emitter.

There is a complex and intertwined relationship between responses to emergencies and carbon emissions. "Pull one string here, and it affects everything else," said Christopher Jones, a climate policy expert at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead developer at the CoolClimate Network, a research consortium focused on tools to reduce carbon emissions, to E&E News. "With the economy and carbon footprints, they're so interrelated that you really quickly start to have all these complex interactions.

The New York Times identified four climate consequences from social distancing.

First, there have been massive reductions in transportation-related carbon emissions.

"For average Americans, the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions is driving," said Nichols to The New York Times. Whenever we reduce driving, it "has a big impact on our climate pollution."

A larger impact is felt when we stop flying. Fewer airplanes in the sky dramatically reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions people create. In fact, it takes eight years of recycling to offset the carbon emissions from one round-trip New York to London flight, according to The New York Times.

As Al Jazeera noted, with more nations going into lockdown, demand for air travel, oil and electricity could continue to drop. Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant that is released when fossil fuels are burned, have decreased some 40 percent in China.

Jones from the CoolClimate Network at UC Berkeley said the increase in people dining at home has not produced a clear effect on carbon emissions, according to The New York Times. And whether we eat out or at home, we tend to waste 25 percent of the food we buy.

However, Nichols said that what we eat matters much more than where, since eating beef has a huge carbon footprint, considering how resource-intensive cattle farming is. Therefore, if you stockpiled beans and rice, you can lower your carbon footprint by working your way through them, as The New York Times suggested.

Working from home means you need to create a comfortable environment. If people are blasting the heat, so they're comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt, then it won't matter that they are not commuting — they will still produce greenhouse gases, according to The New York Times.

Finally, The New York Times discussed shopping from home, which can have a positive impact if you are patient and not demanding rushed delivery. Ordering groceries online allows for efficient packing and logically organized delivery routes.

Unfortunately, the lasting effects of the current reduction in greenhouse gas emissions are doubtful. The virus will pass and industry will ramp up again. People will continue to fly for vacations and sit in traffic as they wait to park at a concert or ball game.

Gernot Wagner, a clinical associate professor at New York University's Department of Environmental Studies, told MIT Technology Review: "Emissions in China are down because the economy has stopped and people are dying, and because poor people are not able to get medicine and food. This is not an analogy for how we want to decrease emissions from climate change."

Furthermore, Helen Mountford of the World Resources Institute told POLITICO that post-recession economies can see a surge in emissions: "After the global financial crisis of 2008, for example, global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production grew 5.9 percent in 2010, more than offsetting the 1.4 percent decrease in 2009."

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Lit candles, flowers and signs are seen in front of the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, Poland on May 31, 2020. Aleksander Kalka / NurPhoto / Getty Images

As protests are taking place across our nation in response to the killing of George Floyd, we want to acknowledge the importance of this protest and the Black Lives Matter movement. Over the years, we've aimed to be sensitive and prioritize stories that highlight the intersection between racial and environmental injustice. From our years of covering the environment, we know that too often marginalized communities around the world are disproportionately affected by environmental crises.

Read More Show Less
Sockeye salmon are seen swimming at a fish farm. Natalie Fobes / Getty Images

By Peter Beech

Using waste food to farm insects as fish food and high-tech real-time water quality monitoring: innovations that could help change global aquaculture, were showcased at the World Economic Forum's Virtual Ocean Dialogues 2020.

Read More Show Less
Shanika Reaux walks through the devastated Lower Ninth Ward on May 10, 2006 in New Orleans, Louisiana, after her home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Mario Tama / Getty Images

The big three broadcast channels failed to cover the disproportionate impacts of extreme weather on low-income communities or communities of color during their primetime coverage of seven hurricanes and one tropical storm over three years, a Media Matters for America analysis revealed.

Read More Show Less
Several drugmakers and research institutions are working on vaccines, antivirals and other treatments to help people infected with COVID-19. krisanapong detraphiphat / Moment / Getty Images

Researchers at the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly announced yesterday that it will start a trial on a new drug designed specifically for COVID-19, a milestone in the race to stop the infectious disease, according to STAT News.

Read More Show Less
The Sumatran rhino is one of 515 endangered species of land animals on the brink of extinction. Mark Carwardine / Photolibrary / Getty Images

The sixth mass extinction is here, and it's speeding up.

Read More Show Less
People are having a hard time trying to understand what information is reliable and what information they can trust. Aekkarak Thongjiew / EyeEm / Getty Images

By Cathy Cassata

With more than 1.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States and more than 100,000 deaths from the virus, physicians face unprecedented challenges in their efforts to keep Americans safe.

They also encounter what some call an "infodemic," an outbreak of misinformation that's making it more difficult to treat patients.

Read More Show Less


Workers clean up a crude oil leak from a pipeline in Minnesota in 2002. JOEY MCLEISTER / Star Tribune via Getty Images

The Trump administration has finalized a rule making it harder for states and tribal communities to block pipelines and other infrastructure projects that threaten waterways.

Read More Show Less