Environmental gains during pandemic prove short-lived
The coronavirus pandemic isn’t having the lasting environmental boost some had hoped for, as emissions tick back up and single-use products like disposable face masks and takeout cutlery clog landfills.
At the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in the spring, greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 17 percent globally as commutes came to a halt and people stuck closer to home.
At the same time, many cities with bans on plastic bags and styrofoam containers suspended those policies to ease burdens on restaurants and avoid potential transmission at grocery stores, though surface contact is no longer suspected to be a major contributor to virus spread.
The net effect: a negligible dent in climate-warming emissions and a surge in plastic and other waste that can take centuries to break down.
“We just published a paper that looks at how much COVID would reduce climate change and the effect is 0.01 degrees Celsius, so it’s actually essentially nothing,” said Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom.
Despite the massive drop a few months ago, emissions are now hovering within 5 percent of what they were around the same time last year, something Le Quéré says is more a result of things slowing down rather than really changing, particularly as people shift back to their routines outside of the U.S.
A big portion of the increase since spring has come from people hopping back in their cars.
“As soon as confinement ended, we’ve gone back in the car mostly and there those emissions have come back up very close to where they were,” Le Quéré told The Hill.
Part of the reason the drop in emissions isn’t significant is that the billions upon billions of tons of carbon emitted this year are accumulating in the atmosphere, along with all the carbon emitted before the pandemic took hold.
“We’re focusing on a relatively small drop in this year’s emissions compared to the flood of emissions we’ll still release this year into the atmosphere. We need to be close to zero and we’ll still be well over 30 billion tons,” said Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project.
“The fact that it’s a few billion tons less than it would have been helps, but only a little.”
Jackson attributed the drop in U.S. emissions to the recession as much as confinement, as industrial emissions are still down.
“Our emissions drop will probably be a bit bigger than a number of countries in Europe, but we need for the economy to work and for emissions to drop, not for emissions to drop because the economy crashed,” he said.
Jackson and Le Quéré both see a massive green investment package — similar to what has been pledged in Europe — as the only way to alleviate the impact of COVID-19 on the economy while transitioning the U.S. to cleaner sources of energy that will reduce emissions.
Le Quéré said the strategy has been effective before. She pointed to investments during the 2008 financial crisis that led to more funding for solar and wind that helped make them more cost competitive.
“We need it now for batteries and electric cars and hydrogen,” she said. “They would benefit from a big one-time investment to push the technology forward in a way that would cut the price drastically, and then they’re on their own, which would be fantastic.”
On the waste front, people around the globe have sharply pivoted to a number of single-use products, a 180-degree turn at a time when societal pressure was leading to bans on plastic bags, straws and styrofoam takeout containers.
Thirty-six cities and states have lifted plastic bag fees or prohibitions because of the virus, while another 15 have delayed implementation of a ban amid the pandemic, according to research from the Product Stewardship Institute, a nonprofit focused on reducing the environmental impacts of consumer products.
Meanwhile, another 14 cities and states temporarily prohibited the use of reusable shopping bags, though most of those policies have since been lifted.
The coronavirus has also increased demand for other throwaway items, like masks and latex gloves that may be discarded after a few uses. In addition, the surge in online ordering has brought an influx of non-recyclable packaging to peoples doorsteps, with cardboard being a major exception.
“There are many layers to the problem but to me there are kind of two prongs,” said Sydney Harris, a senior associate at the Product Stewardship Institute who specializes in product packaging.
She said not only are companies sourcing more non-renewable materials to produce these products and creating more greenhouse gas emissions along the way, but those products then sit in landfills after limited use.
“The fact that we’re doing more of that and not less of that is inherently not sustainable and problematic,” Harris said.
The return to some single-use products, particularly plastic bags, was driven by a fear that coronavirus could spread through surfaces. However, even as research increasingly suggests such transmission is unlikely, many cities have not reinstated their bans.
“The delay of this ban is not to downplay the importance of eliminating plastic bags and the positive impact that will have on our community, but rather to address current anxieties and relieve concerns some are having during this pandemic,” Sunny Simon, a councilwoman in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County who was a sponsor of the ban, said in a statement April announcing that implementation would be delayed from July of this year to early next year.
“Right now, moving the enforcement date to January 1 is in the best interest of our businesses and our residents,” Simon said.
The switch back to single-use items, Harris said, is a huge blow to a movement that was beginning to take hold as American consumers became less resistant to carrying their own shopping bags and more businesses began to refill reusable containers.
“Of course reusables are just as safe,” Harris said, adding that people need to focus on big picture measures like washing hands and getting a flu shot to assist with limiting the impact of COVID-19.
“To say that plastics are safer or single-use materials are safer is playing off people’s fears in a really harmful way.”