The surge in New York City’s coronavirus infections is already so critical that the chief medical officer at a major hospital system warned staff of the grim reality: “…there will be loss, and suffering, and at times perhaps each of us will question our will to fight.”
The coronavirus — which is hospitalizing severely sick young and old people alike — has already had a punishing, paramount influence on human civilization, and it will get much worse. But today’s wide-scale shutdown of cities, extreme social distancing measures, and plummeting transportation usage will have no immediate, meaningful impact on Earth’s colossal carbon dioxide woes or the planet’s relentless warming trend.
The rising atmospheric concentrations of the potent heat-trapping gas carbon dioxide — now at its highest levels in at least 800,000 years, but more likely millions of years — hasn’t slowed much, if at all. And an event that will cost countless lives wasn’t ever a climate fix, anyhow.
“This is not anyone’s idea of a solution to the climate crisis,” said Kristopher Karnauskas, a climate scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Slowing down the rise in CO2 will mean big, long-term societal changes. If widespread economic shutdowns persist through the coming months, we’ll likely see a slowing down of rising CO2 numbers in the atmosphere. But, critically, this won’t make a dent in the mass, or pile, of carbon dioxide we’ve built up over the last 150 years.
“The pile is still there,” said Ralph Keeling, the director of the Scripps CO2 Program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “We’re not getting rid of the pile.”
To better understand, let’s look at the big picture, and then zoom in.
The big, big picture
The graph below shows how Earth’s carbon dioxide emissions have skyrocketed in the last century or so. Compared to the last 800,000 years, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are rising sharply.
The last 60 years
Here, we can see that atmospheric CO2 numbers have kept rising, unabated, since the 1960s. (The red, saw-like line shows how each year atmospheric CO2 levels also naturally rise and fall when the great forests of the Northern Hemisphere gulp up CO2 during the warm seasons, and then release it back into the atmosphere in the fall.)
The last year
Below is a zoomed-in look at CO2 numbers over the last year. We can see one of the seasonal drops, or valleys, amid the incessantly rising CO2 numbers. There might be a slight slowdown in February and March — maybe partly attributable to China’s colossal coronavirus shutdown — but nothing extreme or beyond what could have happened naturally.
“There’s not much suggestion yet of a clear turndown in the growth rate,” said Keeling.
But, if global economies continue to slow during these periods of extreme social isolation and business closures, a slowing trend could become more apparent in the coming months, Keeling said.
Yet, the big picture is clear: Earth has a massive stockpile of accumulated CO2. The pandemic might temporarily slow the relentless growth of these emissions, but it will hardly make a dent in the overall problem (see above: “The big, big picture.”) The pandemic alone won’t impact the long-term, amassing CO2 trend we’ve seen over the last century.
What’s more, countries will seek to stimulate their stagnant economies, like the $2 trillion dollar spending bill in Congress — which would be the biggest single stimulus in the nation’s history. These robust stimulus efforts will boost carbon emissions, as the industrialized world largely runs on fossil fuels.
“There’s going to be some kind of rebound,” said Karnauskas. “They’re going to work double-time to make up for it.”
If CO₂ emissions drop an extreme 10% in 2020, would we see it in atmospheric CO₂ concentrations?
~45% of CO₂ emissions remain in the atmosphere: ~42*0.45=19GtCO₂/yr.
— Glen Peters (@Peters_Glen) March 23, 2020
There is, however, the possibility that this historic pandemic will drive longer-term societal changes that permanently slow the rise in atmospheric carbon concentrations.
“When we come out of this, how does it change our behavior?” asked Keeling. “The world won’t be the same when we come out of this.”
After months of not flying, commuting less, and working from home, perhaps there will be permanent shifts in how we choose to live. This could mean using less energy, emitting less carbon, and eventually lowering the CO2 in our atmosphere.
But, these CO2 concentrations will still keep going up until we drop carbon emissions to zero, emphasized Karnauskas. We’re far, far, far away from achieving that. In 2019, for example, carbon emissions rose to their highest levels ever. Humanity dumped some 38.6 billion tons of CO2 into the air last year. Reducing that to zero will take herculean changes.
Once society curbs this pandemic — if we commit to following critical social distancing measures — it will be easy to see if we ultimately cut emissions. Atmospheric carbon concentrations don’t lie. They’ve been going up for well over a century.
“You can’t hide the emissions,” said Karnauskas.