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The Pandemic’s Environmental Impact

Clear Skies on Earth Day

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, established on April 22, 1970. While coronavirus’ negative impacts have been widespread and devastating, the verdict is still out on what impact the virus could have on the environment.

To start, China’s carbon emissions were 25% lower this past February than they were a year ago. Projections by Carbon Brief, a UK-based site that analyzes climate change and policy, estimate that global carbon emissions will drop 5.5% this year as compared to 2019, marking the greatest annual reduction in recorded history. Heather Grady, Vice President at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, says that perhaps this period can be “a moment with a potential for enormous change that wouldn’t be created under normal circumstances.”

While these numbers show that the world is capable of reducing emissions, they are still far away from what climate scientists and activists hope to achieve. The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement calls for a limit in global warming of 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial temperatures in the coming decades. An annual, sustained 7.6% reduction in carbon emissions is needed to achieve this, according to the UN .

Unexpected Consequences

Despite lower carbon emissions, the pandemic has taken a toll on the natural world in other ways. Recycling centers have halted their programs due to fear of spreading the virus. Residential waste volumes have increased as consumers increasingly shop online and order food delivered in single-use packaging.

Additionally, import restrictions and decreased cargo transportation services have led to an excess of agricultural and fishery commodities. These eventually become organic waste that releases the greenhouse gas methane as they decay. As a result, CH4 emissions are expected to increase for months. National Park employees and conservationists have been forced to stay at home, meaning that vulnerable areas have been left susceptible to illegal deforestation, fishing, and hunting.

The Takeaways for Future Earth Days

The pandemic’s environmental impact has already led to major policy changes, and will only continue to contribute to further insights regarding systemic behaviors and actions.

Reduced global demand for energy has all but eliminated major sources of air pollution, serving as a sort of experiment for what future air quality could look like if mass transit were powered electrically and fossil fuels were replaced with renewables.

Even before coronavirus, many businesses had been increasingly focusing on their environmental impact. Deutsche Bank (DB) has created teams committed to sustainable finance. Citigroup (C) and other multinational banks have updated their energy policies to remove funding for oil drilling and gas exploration. Now these companies have an example of what the future could look like.

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