Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many have hoped that a silver lining of worldwide lockdowns will be a significant decrease in pollution. This has proved to be the case, as the Rhodium Group reported in early January this year that greenhouse gas emissions in the United States dropped an estimated 10.3% in 2020, below emission levels in 1990 for the first time since then. Greenhouse gas emissions from all major contributing sectors dropped in 2020, with transportation emissions decreasing most sharply by 14.7%, followed by a 10.3% decrease in emissions from power generation, a 7.0% decrease in industrial emissions, and a 6.2% decrease in household emissions from buildings. 

According to the Global Carbon Project, carbon dioxide emissions decreased by 7% in 2020, the largest yearly decrease on record. Among all countries, the U.S. experienced the largest decrease of carbon emissions, 12%, followed by the European Union, which saw a decline of 11%. India, the third largest producer of carbon emissions worldwide, decreased emissions by 9%. However, China, the top carbon emitter, only decreased emissions by 1.7%. This can be partially explained by China implementing lockdowns earlier than other countries, which allowed industries to reopen earlier than in the rest of the world.

Other forms of pollution have also decreased as a result of the pandemic. In late March of 2020, the Guardian reported that satellite imagery from the European Space Agency showed a decrease in nitrogen dioxide levels in the air in parts of Asia and Europe, dropping by roughly 10% to30% in China and roughly 40% in Italy. Nitrogen dioxide, though not a greenhouse gas, is a pollutant that can make breathing difficult and damage agriculture. It is produced by industrial processes and transportation, so logically lockdowns would result in a decrease in nitrogen dioxide levels.

Decreased pollution has also benefited the natural world. For example, noise pollution in the ocean damages the health of marine animals. In December, 2020, the Verge reported that, as a result of lockdowns, marine traffic has decreased, leading to a decrease in marine noise pollution by as much as 50% in some places. Marine noise pollution creates a fog-like auditory effect that impedes animals’ ability to communicate. The pandemic has given marine species a much-needed chance to recover from the effects of noise pollution.

However, scientists do not expect the pandemic’s impact on climate change and pollution to be lasting. Decreases in pollution seen in 2020 were a result of strict lockdowns worldwide, a measure unlikely to be seen as a sustainable strategy for combating environmental crises. Rather, broad systemic changes will be needed to effectively curb global emissions and pollution. As vaccines are distributed and the end of the pandemic begins to come into sight, normal life will begin to resume, to an extent, and with it pollution will increase. Many scientists believe that the most pressing issue related to pollution is climate change. To minimize the effects of climate change, emissions will have to decrease drastically, which can only be achieved through shifts to sustainable energy sources. Members of the Concord Academy community who are interested in learning about and fighting these issues should advocate for the use of sustainable energy wherever possible. Ways to do so include contacting elected officials, corporations, and leaders of institutions; joining Green Club and the Sunrise Movement hub at CA; and exploring ways to rely less on non-renewable energy.