Jonathan Overpeck: Environmental impacts of the pandemic: U-M experts can discuss
As the coronavirus pandemic forces millions of Americans to stay home, traffic on roads and highways has fallen dramatically and large declines in air pollution have been observed over major metropolitan areas. And last month in China, industrial output dropped sharply due to COVID-19, leading to significant reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases that contribute to climate change.
University of Michigan experts can discuss these developments.
Jonathan Overpeck is an interdisciplinary climate scientist and the Samuel A. Graham Dean of the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability. He is an expert on paleoclimate, climate-vegetation interactions, climate and weather extremes, sea-level rise, the impacts of climate change and options for dealing with it. Overpeck served as a lead author on the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 and 2014 reports.
“A recent dramatic drop in air pollution in multiple parts of the globe has been observed from space and at street level,” he said. “This drop stems from the rapid reduction in regional fossil fuel burning associated with transport and industrial activities, which in turn is the result of a rapidly slowing economy and whole populations of people isolating themselves at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s important not to trivialize all the human suffering associated with this virus, but there are key lessons in the observed drop in pollution levels. First and foremost is the fact that climate-change action will by definition eliminate most of the pollution-causing fossil fuel burning. This co-benefit of climate action will thus greatly reduce the significant health hazards associated with our worst source of air pollution.
“Not only does the fossil fuel pollution lead to many premature deaths every year, it also preconditions people and their respiratory systems to be more vulnerable to potentially deadly illnesses such as COVID-19. Going forward, we now have clear evidence that action on climate change will also provide the benefit of cleaner air and better health.”
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Climatologist Chris Poulsen, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, studies large-scale climate change through Earth’s history. He can discuss the possible environmental and climate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The total impact of COVID-19 on our environment will not be known for some time and will depend on how quickly industrial activities and energy production return to pre-crisis levels,” said Poulsen, who is associate dean for natural sciences at the U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. “If the crisis turns into a global recession, reductions in carbon emissions could be substantial and might slow the rise of atmospheric CO2 level.
“Economic slowdown and a decline in consumption of goods and services will reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. This happened last month in China, where industrial output is estimated to have declined by 15% to 40%, leading to a decrease in carbon emissions of about 25% over a four-week period and a 37% decline in nitrous oxide levels. This also happened during the Great Recession of 2007-2013 and contributed to an 11% decrease in fossil fuel CO2 emissions in the United States during that period.”
Faculty Q&A: Carbon and COVID-19
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