A Pandemic’s Environmental Side Effects

Apart from its many health implications, COVID-19 has dealt some powerful environmental side effects. As NASA aptly put it, the pandemic has created “an unintended experiment” and the results are coming in. One of the most highly publicized impacts is the 17% reduction in daily global CO2 emissions, compared to average 2019 values. The forcible reduction in resource use is visually apparent from images like those below depicting the change in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions in China.

china_trop_2020056-e1a9c9a00d871f9e5dda6b8f263a3215b34f8304-s1600-c85
These images show China’s nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels in January 2020 and February 2020. A drastic reduction is visually apparent. NO2 itself is not a greenhouse gas, but it does contribute to the formation of tropospheric ozone, which is a greenhouse gas. Source: Sommer, L. (2020, March 4). Why China’s Air Has Been Cleaner During The Coronavirus Outbreak. NPR.

 

But this break from emissions does not mean that anything has changed in terms of climate change mitigation. A temporary reprieve does not guarantee continued reductions in emissions, as demonstrated by the Great Recession. According to a UC Irvine study, the United States’ CO2 emissions dropped by 10% between 2007 and 2009. However, the years 2010, 2013, and 2014 all saw spikes in CO2 emissions of 4%, 2%, and 1% respectively.¹

According to a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), if we are to limit warming to 1.5°C, CO2 emissions must “decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030” and reach “net zero around 2050”.² This brief 17% decline is temporary and future increases in greenhouse gas emissions are very likely as countries work to repair their economies, some relying on non-renewable energy.

So the situation sounds a bit grim. Fortunately, there are lessons that we can take from this otherwise horrible experience that could help us reduce our emissions. I personally have seen a significant reduction in my resource use, which I calculated on www.footprintcalculator.org.

In order to understand my results, you might need a quick introduction to the Earth Overshoot Day. This metric for resource use is referenced far less than its cousin, the carbon footprint, so if you’re unfamiliar, you’re not alone. The overshoot day is the date on which humans have used up the Earth’s resource production for the year, meaning that humanity is in the red resource-wise for the rest of the year. An early overshoot date means that we used our resources too quickly, while a late overshoot date means that resources were used more economically. (Last year the global Earth Overshoot Day was the earliest ever – July 29.) The footprint calculator tells me what the overshoot day would be if everyone lived like me.

From the screenshots below, you can see that due to quarantine, my personal earth overshoot day moved from the 17th of June to the 8th of July. And you can also see that the number of earths required if everyone lived like me is reduced from 2.2 to 1.9 earths. The biggest change in my resource use came from a significant reduction in my weekly transportation mileage and an increase in the amount I carpool with my boyfriend, with whom I’m quarantining.

 

Screen Shot 2020-05-15 at 11.22.21 AM
My pre-quarantine metrics, showing what my personal overshoot day is and how many earths we would need if everyone lived like me.
Screen Shot 2020-05-15 at 11.22.43 AM
My pre-quarantine metrics, which break down my resource consumption by category and list my ecological and carbon footprints. You can see that mobility accounted for a large portion of my resource usage.

 


 

Screen Shot 2020-05-15 at 11.25.41 AM
My metrics during quarantine, showing what my new personal overshoot day is and how many earths we would need if everyone lived like me.
Screen Shot 2020-05-15 at 11.26.02 AM
My metrics during quarantine, which break down my resource consumption by category and list my ecological and carbon footprints.

 

Even though it’s great to see this improvement in my metrics, they’re still far from optimal. Thus, I’m going to make additional changes. Here’s the plan:

  • Bike to and from school (I start grad school in the fall).
  • Carpool or take public transportation to school when I can’t bike.
  • Take cold showers, which in addition to reducing my energy usage, will have the added benefit of lessening the amount of water I use. I’m getting out of that water as fast as possible. It’s COLD.
  • Buy more local foods and avoid unnecessary packaging. (Check out my post about some steps I took to limit my plastic use here!)
  • Minimize the number of purchases I make that require shipping.

And there are some measures I currently take to limit my environmental impact that I intend to continue:

  • Eat a plant-based diet.
  • Purchase clothes second-hand or from sustainable/eco-friendly brands
  • Resist the temptation of fashion services, such as StitchFix, that frequently ship items to subscribers
  • Recycle and compost as much as possible.
  • Volunteer to plant trees around the city with Trees Atlanta.
  • Contribute to environmental non-profits such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Nature Conservancy. A fun way to donate to WWF is through Charity Miles! It’s an app that tracks your activity and for every mile you walk, run, or bike, money is donated to the charity of your choice, which could be WWF!

 

Is this pandemic the break the earth needed to recharge? Definitely not. However, it could be the wake-up call society needed in terms of our habitual resource use. There are a lot of lessons to be gleaned from this experience, such as the fact that many of us can work from home, we don’t need to eat out every night, we can enjoy a staycation or road trip instead of international travel, etc. I’m still learning these lessons myself and I hope you’ll join me in taking some environmental positives from an otherwise difficult situation because there truly is a great deal that we can and must do.

If you’re interested in calculating your carbon footprint/ecological footprint, here are some resources!

https://www.footprintcalculator.org/

https://www.conservation.org/carbon-footprint-calculator#/

https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/carbon-footprint-calculator/

 

And if you have suggestions on how to further reduce personal emissions, please leave a comment!

 

Sources:

¹ U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2019, November 14). U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/.

² Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2018). Global Warming of 1.5°C.An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Retrieved from https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/.

Earth Overshoot Day. (2019, June 26). Earth Overshoot Day 2019 is July 29, the earliest ever. Retrieved from https://www.overshootday.org/newsroom/press-release-june-2019-english/.

Feng, K., Davis, S., Sun, L. et al. (2015, July 21). Drivers of the US CO2 emissions 1997–2013. Nat Commun 6, 7714. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms8714.

Le Quéré, C., Jackson, R.B., Jones, M.W. et al. (2020, May 19). Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0797-x.

Magill, B. (2015, July 21). Recession Caused U.S. Emissions Drop, Study Says. Retrieved from https://www.climatecentral.org/news/recession-caused-us-emissions-drop-19272.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (2020, April 29). NASA Probes Environment, COVID-19 Impacts, Possible Links. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/feature/nasa-probes-environment-covid-19-impacts-possible-links.

Sommer, L. (2020, March 4). Why China’s Air Has Been Cleaner During The Coronavirus Outbreak. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/03/04/811019032/why-chinas-air-has-been-cleaner-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak.

 

 

 

 

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