In the course of dramatically altering our daily lives, COVID-19 has also transformed the way we rely— or, more accurately, don’t rely— on many processes that produce heavy fossil fuel emissions.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the FAA provided service for more than 44,000 flights and 2.7 million airline passengers daily! Now, in the middle of April, the skies and airports are virtually empty.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Americans took a total of 1.1 billion trips a day in their cars. Now, in the midst of this pandemic, drivers are staying home or venturing out only to stock up on groceries or get to an essential job.
In the process of changing our lives to protect against the transmission of COVID-19, we have also created patterns that may temporarily decrease fossil fuel emissions.
Impacts of Reduced Pollution Detected in China
China is notorious for its widespread air pollution, but the first few months of 2020 tell a different story. According to NASA’s pollution monitoring satellites, the total levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant emitted into the air through burning fossil fuels, decreased in large Chinese cities during quarantine. Data indicates a significant drop from 10 to 30 percent lower than what is normally observed.
Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, explains, “This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event.” Unlike the gradual and localized decreases in pollution that occurred during the economic recession of 2008, these emissions reductions occurred immediately and across the country.
Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, confirms this trend. “It is an unprecedented dramatic drop in emissions. I’ve definitely spoken to people in Shanghai who said that it’s been some of the most pristine blue skies that they remember over the winter.”
U.S Energy Information Administration Predicts Decline
In early April, the U.S Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicted steep declines in commercial and industrial electricity demand, as well as a drop in demand for oil. Not coincidentally, also at the beginning of April, NASA stated, “Over the past few weeks, the Northeast United States has seen significant reductions in air pollution over its major metropolitan areas.” Like China, the decrease of nitrogen oxide has been significant.
Since NO2 is primarily emitted from burning fossil fuels coming out of vehicle tailpipes and factory smokestacks, NO2 levels directly reflect changes in human activity. Large cities including Washington, D.C, New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston have all experienced a 30% decrease in nitrogen dioxide levels since the pandemic began.
“March 2020 shows the lowest monthly atmospheric nitrogen dioxide levels of any March during the OMI data record, which spans 2005 to present,” according to NASA’s statement.
So what does this mean for the future? While the pandemic is likely to reduce average overall emissions for the year 2020, car, factory, and airplane emissions will return to normal once the state of emergency is over.