Social Distancing Is Also Helping the Climate
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."
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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