One in four Americans is currently living under a “shelter in place order,” directed by their state officials not to leave their homes if possible. The governors of California, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey and New York all passed similar orders last week, so 25% of Americans, including me and maybe you, have been adjusting to a sudden, extreme, and indefinite lifestyle change. Celebrities are staying home and recording a cappella videos, fully grown adults are learning Tiktok dances, and workplaces and schools have been replaced by virtual chatrooms.
This atmosphere is disorienting and ominous; people are rightly afraid of themselves or their loved ones falling ill. But lost in the virtual noise of case counts and virus maps and twitter threads is one positive effect of this tear in the fabric of society: a dramatic decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.
Satellites that sense chemical emissions in the air are showing sharp declines in atmospheric pollution over cities that have ordered their citizens to stay home. Los Angeles, which is normally one of America’s smoggiest cities, recorded starkly cleaner air readings over the past two weeks than the same two weeks last year. In the Bay Area, the number of vehicles crossing the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Oakland went down by forty percent in just the last two weeks, and is likely to fall further.
It’s not just the reduction of cars on the road that’s cutting emissions down. The mass closure of restaurants, bars, and stores have sharply reduced electricity use in cities as well. Columbia University researchers reported that carbon monoxide emissions decreased over 50% in the last week.
Obviously, enforced social isolation is not the solution to climate change, and this positive byproduct of the pandemic might soon be counteracted by increased production of supplies to combat the virus, or mass movement of people in its wake. However, we can still take lessons away from this moment. Despite many conservative politicians’ claims, it is possible to rapidly cut down our greenhouse gas emissions, and people are capable of making massive sacrifices to save the lives of people they don’t know. Remembering these facts will be essential to making the radical societal changes necessary to combat climate change in the future.