How much is COVID-19 affecting the environment?

April 17, 2020 by Joshua
in Nature

Podcast guest and bestselling author Nir Eyal, whose pre-lockdown challenge included avoiding flying, emailed the following question:

Hi Joshua – I had a question you may be able to answer. Have you considered the potential positive impact on the environment due to reduced emissions as a result of the COVID crisis? I wonder what reduction in use of fossil fuels would be required to prevent climate change and if we’re anywhere close to those numbers now that economic activity has been so heavily impacted.

Any ideas?

— Nir Eyal

Most of us have seen pictures of New Delhi skies and Venice canals so know that globally we’re polluting less, however externally motivated. I decided to look up if people had researched.

I thought you might value my response:

I wondered myself so got into answering. I hope the following is quick enough to read.

A lot of people have reported on reduced emissions. This Guardian article, Disbelief in big cities as air pollution falls, illustrates some of the most stark reductions in cities’ pollution, probably a fair proxy for greenhouse emissions, plus they’re interactive. You’ve seen images of Venice’s canals too, I’m sure.

The climate has already changed, so we can’t prevent it. Herculean effort and cooperation could keep it below 2 degrees Celsius, which could reduce the suffering of billions of humans. You may have seen a graph like this:

Graph on keeping
      warming below 2C

Globally, we have to reduce emissions about 5% per year for decades to keep below 2C.

Having reduced mine about 90% in a few years, I know it’s possible—actually joyful, which motivates my work and brought me to you.

Some people have calculated the reduction from Covid-19 lockdowns. Forbes reports in How Much Will The Coronavirus Lockdown Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions In Europe? One Analyst Has An Answer:

Greenhouse gas emissions in Europe will drop 24.4 percent in 2020 because of the coronavirus lockdown, according to a new analysis.

The projection by Marcus Ferdinand of Independent Commodity Intelligence Services mirrors a 25 percent drop forecast for China by the Centre for Research in Energy and Clean Air. Europe can expect to emit 388.8 million tons less of carbon than it did before COVID-19, Ferdinand writes in ICIS’s Early Impact Assessment.

But the LA Times in Coronavirus shutdowns are lowering greenhouse gas emissions; history shows they’ll roar back reports:

does [shrinking greenhouse emissions] mean we are turning a corner in cutting planet-warming pollution?

If history is any indication, no. The slide in emissions will be temporary, experts say. What’s more, scientists and environmentalists worry the pandemic will at the same time undermine government and industry’s resolve to cut emissions in the long term.

You asked my ideas, I believe the LA Times view accepts people acting as they have, but leadership can change culture and behavior. We’ve changed on seat belts, drunk driving, cigarettes, slavery, and more. Your books are all about change. Some of my solo podcast episodes describe my strategy. No obligation to listen, but here are a few short episodes developing my thoughts more. Given that you asked the question and experienced not flying by choice, I think you’d like them.

Bottom line: I believe humans would love the experience of committing fully to stewardship, taking responsibility for how their behavior affected others. Using one major source of pollution as an example, they associate flying with profit, adventure, family, etc. so they associate not flying with losing money, boredom, and never seeing their moms again. Experience will show them nearly the opposite — flying reduces time with family, makes them dependent on others for adventure, and lowers their control over their careers.

Covid-19 lockdowns may help people experience the flaws in their associations.


Nir Eyal

A note on Nir Eyal and his book Indistractable before closing. Now that my podcast is big, people send me a lot of books. I don’t get to read many. Of those I read, few meaningfully influence me. Indistractable led me to change my behavior. I focus more and find myself distracted less.

Besides his book, when we recorded our podcast conversation at his place, we got to talking about barefoot running. I forget if that part of the conversation made the recording. I’ve run with minimal shoes for years. As a result of his conversation, I’ve been walking barefoot to develop the soles of my feet in preparation for running.

You probably know I pick up at least one piece of trash per day. I’ve been walking from my mom’s place on the country road here barefoot—including today in the snow.

Few guests have influenced me that much.

EDIT: I recommend everyone watch these videos on preventing pandemics including COVID-19, considering how much our behavior is causing them:

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