The popular notion that the COVID-19 pandemic has been “good for the environment”—that nature is recovering while humanity stays at home— appeals to many people grasping for some upside to the global tragedy. Reality, though, may not cooperate with such hopes.
The benefits many found heartening early on—from cleaner air to birdsong newly audible as cars and planes went quiet—were always likely to be temporary. And with lockdowns easing, they have already begun to dissipate. Now, some experts fear that the world risks a future with more traffic, more pollution, and climate change that worsens faster than ever. It’s too soon to know whether that gloomy scenario will play out, but concerning signs seem to be growing all around the world.
In early April, with shutdowns widespread, daily global carbon emissions were down by 17 percent compared to last year. But as of June 11, new data show that they are only about 5 percent lower than at the same point in 2019, even though normal activity has not yet fully restarted.
“We still have the same cars, the same roads, the same industries, same houses,” says Corinne Le Quéré, professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia in Britain and lead author of the original study and subsequent update. “So as soon as the restrictions are released, we go right back to where we were.”
Now, “the risk is very high” that carbon output could surge past pre-pandemic levels, she says, “especially since we’ve done it in the past, not very long ago.” During the 2007-08 financial crisis, emissions dropped but then bounced back.
Hints of a dirty recovery in China
As the first country to shut down when the virus hit, and one of the earliest to start reopening, China’s experience offers a preview of what could be in store elsewhere. The dramatic air quality improvements seen as manufacturing and transportation largely came to a halt in February and March have now vanished.
As factories pushed to make up for lost time, pollution returned in early May to pre-coronavirus levels, and in some places surpassed them for a short time, although it’s fallen back a…
Read More: Why COVID-19 will end up harming the environment