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Not Driving During COVID-19 Lockdowns Didn't Do Much To Help Slow Climate Change

Little traffic is seen on the 110 freeway in Los Angeles during a normally busy Friday rush hour commute on April 10, 2020 in California, where the Stay-At-Home order has been extended from April 19 to May 15 amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Little traffic is seen on the 110 freeway in Los Angeles during a normally busy Friday rush hour commute on April 10, 2020 in California, where the Stay-At-Home order has been extended from April 19 to May 15 amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Image: Frederic J. BROWN / AFP (Getty Images)

The saying ‘a little goes a long way’ doesn’t really apply to climate change, so our piddly break from driving hasn’t really done much to move the needle. A new study found that the roughly three months we were all inside at the beginning of the year only lowered the estimated rise in temperature by 2030 by 0.01 degrees.

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That tiny blip on Earth’s future thermostat is thanks to a 17 percent drop in global emissions during the peak of the Coronavirus crisis. At least half of that drop was from transportation emission, according to an earlier study. I mean, it’s better than nothing? And actually slightly impressive that we could move the needle at all in just a few months. It sorta gives me hope that maybe we can lick this thing. But the only thing that can slow down climate change to merely horrible from totally catastrophic would be an intense global investment into green technologies. It’s also not as easy as just stopping everything. From the BBC:

With other researchers, they calculated how 10 different greenhouse gases and air pollutants changed between February and June 2020 in 123 countries.

They found that the drop off peaked in April, with CO2, nitrogen oxides and other emissions falling between 10-30% globally, mainly due to declines in surface transport.

But this new work shows that some of the declines in greenhouse gases actually cancelled each other out in terms of warming.

Nitrogen oxides from transport normally have a warming impact in the atmosphere.

While they went down by 30%, they were matched by a drop in sulphur dioxide, which mainly comes from the burning of coal.

Emissions of this gas help aerosols to form, which reflect sunlight back into space and cool the planet.

This balancing out, combined with the temporary nature of the pandemic restrictions, mean the impact on warming by 2030 will hardly be felt.

“Although temporary changes can help, you need to reduce CO2 permanently to make a dent in global warming,” said Prof Piers Forster from the University of Leeds.

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Wait, the two pollutions cancel each other out? That is incredibly frustrating. Any temperature rise of 1.5 Celcius by 2050 is considered a benchmark for just how fucked we are on our planet, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to Prof. Forster, if we go back to business as usual without a major global push towards green energy, then our average temperature will likely rise above the 1.5 Celcius mark.

Luckily in America, workers who are able to skip a commute are starting to like it. According to a study by Morning Consult, 75 percent of Americans said they would work from home at least once a week if/when the pandemic is under control. Another 32 percent want to stay in their home offices full time. As Streetsblog noted, a 32 percent reduction in daily drivers could lead to as many as 48.1 million cars off the road every day.

Managing Editor of Jalopnik.

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DISCUSSION

It wasn’t just a reduction of traffic, but the massive halting of most industrial factories world wide. Even though air cleared up around the globe, it made practically no impact on long-term CO2 levels yet. I’ve been watching several environmental numbers like a hawk because I’m a science nerd and was curious what impact it’d have.

We will have to wait a year for solid numbers to come out. Seasonal swings do throw a curve ball.