Throughout the pandemic, many have observed a significant reduction in the number of individuals traveling. Whether it be opting to drive instead of flying or choosing to eliminate travel from one’s annual routine, many community members have drastically shifted their moral policy regarding vacationing. Nick Brady ’24 commented on his family’s personal cutback, “I feel as if it’s a question of both health and morality—do I even want to risk putting others in harm’s way?” Nick’s comment depicts a clear shift in travel psyche when compared to only a year ago. With so many fewer people travelling than usual, in addition to the new societal norms regarding travelling, the question arises: Will COVID-19 result in any long-term social changes in emissions?
The answer is, unfortunately, likely not. “Projections of global economic activity with and without the pandemic show only a small impact of COVID-19 on emissions,” co-director of MIT’s Program of Global Change John Reilly commented. According to IEA.org, 2020 saw the most significant dip in carbon emissions and the largest decrease in demand for fossil fuel, with a 5.8% reduction in each when compared to previous years. Despite this achievement, projections for global greenhouse gas emissions still are estimated to rebound back to what they were pre-pandemic, with the global climate theorized to reach 3.1–3.7 degrees Celsius above average by 2100.
Despite this dismaying data, Reilly mentioned a glimmer of possible hope, “The effect on the level of investment that nations are willing to commit to meet or beat their Paris [Climate Agreement] emissions targets has shifted quite significantly.” The pandemic has surprisingly made these goals cheaper and more politically palatable.
Financial incentives resulting from the pandemic have also motivated many companies to take a greener approach. According to Shawmut Communications, green programs increased 54% in just the past year. “I just feel better if I’m sourcing the stuff I buy from somewhere I know cares about pressing issues like climate change,” Nick continued. This widespread mindset allows the growth of companies who have implemented such policies to rise to twenty-eight times that of a standard business, with 46% of businesses reporting partnerships being built with like-minded individuals.
However, evidence of a rebound back to normalcy makes this achievement possibly temporary. Though travel numbers reported by the Transportation Security Administration have been down by almost nine hundred thousand in recent weeks compared to 2019, the total number of those passing through airports is clearly rising. “It’s strange to see people getting back to a kind of societal normalcy—it feels like it’s been eons since that was last true,” Nick remarked. With Governor Baker ending major COVID-19 restrictions on May 29, the future continues to progress into perplexity and the question of how we can achieve carbon neutrality as a nation descends further into uncertainty.