The fast-spreading coronavirus has infected more than 100,000 people worldwide, heightened fears about a planetary pandemic, and rocked global markets. The coronavirus is also having an unexpected environmental effect: it is reducing carbon emissions.
China's work stoppages and declining industrial production have cut the country's normally high carbon emissions by at least a quarter, according to an analysis recently published in CarbonBrief by Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst at the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air. . That drop translates into a 6 percent decrease in global global emissions. New research by China's statistics bureau shows that the country's manufacturing activity suffered the deepest contraction on record last month.
A decrease in air travel could be playing a supporting role. By mid-February, around 13,000 daily flights had been canceled, and many airlines suspended flights to and from mainland China. Aviation remains one of the most carbon-intensive activities, accounting for 2 percent of emissions worldwide.
But how should we think of something as objectively terrible as the coronavirus, which has left more than 3,000 people dead, temporarily slowing climate change?
The truth is, there are a lot of bad things in the world that also (temporarily) reduce carbon emissions. Experts have attributed a 10 percent decline in fossil fuel pollution in the United States between 2007 and 2009 to the global recession and financial crisis that later gripped the country, leaving millions of people out of work. The Chinese government's one-child policy was widely denounced for causing an epidemic of forced abortions and even infanticide. But the government boasted that it avoided 1.3 billion tons of carbon emissions.
These breaths from fossil fuel pollution aren't really "good for" the climate. For one thing, they rarely last. In 2010, after the recession, the United States economy rebounded and, with it, fossil fuel emissions eliminated the losses of previous years. The drop in Chinese coronavirus emissions is also likely to be temporary; China is known to dramatically increase production after a crisis to make up for lost time.
Also, in times of global stress, green projects often back down to more pressing problems. Distracted by the problem at hand, governments channel political attention and subsidies toward the pandemic or economic collapse. The environment is shortened.
The problem of climate change is not about how we save the earth (the earth will be fine without us). It's about how humans can thrive, not just survive, in a world with greenhouse gas restrictions. So even if a Thanos-style reckoning may sound nice when you're depressed about species extinction, melting polar ice, etc., you can't save a world by destroying it.