Carbon Emissions and COVID-19 — an Inverted Correlation

As many of us have had to experience, the COVID-19 pandemic has essentially forced a mass-scale withdrawal from society. The United States government has recommended adhering to social distancing guidelines, with many cities ordering that nonessential businesses close. In a broader context this means that the spread of the virus is directly impacting economic participation. While some have the benefit of being able to work from home, many are unable, with a record number of 6.6 million people applying for unemployment as of March 28. However, what is also unprecedented is the drop in carbon emissions and greenhouse gases worldwide. 

In the context of the U.S., transportation accounted for roughly 35.8% of the country’s emissions in 2018, with around 60% of these emissions coming from passenger vehicles. In Europe, 30% of carbon emissions came from transportation as of 2019, 72% of which from passenger vehicles — figures of close similarity that are unlikely to have changed drastically as of this year. Given this data and the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly reduced the necessity of driving, the decline in emissions is expected but will more than likely be short-term. To have a sustainable reduction in emissions requires structural change, something that can only be effectively accomplished and carried out through new policies and additional regulation. 

In fact, while the present pandemic may provide an indirect benefit toward mitigating air pollution, the economic impact it has toward sectors of the economy that are presently at a standstill, namely the airline industry, has created an incentive for airlines to lobby toward stripping back aspects of the carbon deal. The deal specifies that airlines need to pay a particular amount to offset the growth of carbon emissions above a baseline set by a yearly average. However, the number of passengers has dropped significantly due to the pandemic. As of April 8th, the TSA reported that they screened as little as 100,000 people that week — a number far lower than the weekly average of around 2.1 million. In light of our present situation, the cost of the carbon deal may provide too great of a strain on the industry given that flying has been discouraged as a measure toward mitigating the spread of COVID-19. 

It is important to understand that the positive impacts this pandemic will have on issues such as air pollution among others is undoubtedly short term. However, perhaps in retrospect one positive insight that will be gained from this horrible situation is a more concrete and definitive understanding of the ways in which essential aspects of our lives, namely transportation, so greatly affects the world around us. 

Written by: Aidan Farmayan
Art by: Rania Agrawal

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