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As the world stays home, will the environment improve?

As more and more people stay at home during the pandemic, millions of vehicles are no longer on the roads and the skies are comparatively free of airplanes. Many other human activities that cause air pollution also have been scaled back. But will this lull in activity make a difference in the air we breathe or the future of climate change? NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports.

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  • Christopher Booker:

    In early March, NASA released some startling satellite images comparing nitrogen dioxide levels in China before and after the coronavirus lockdown. The first, compiled between January 1 and January 20, shows the world's second largest economy, chugging away at full steam. The second, compiled from February 10 to February 25, shows that same economy in a near standstill.

    The reduction in nitrogen dioxide — the noxious gas that comes from cars, power plants and industrial facilities — was dramatic. Suddenly the choking air of major cities became easier to breathe.

    As other countries have hunkered down, does the slowing of emissions also portend a respite for global climate change? Those who have built careers studying and analyzing the atmosphere say… well, maybe.

  • Ralph Keeling:

    We've looked at that over the last month and it's possible it's a tiny bit below where it might otherwise have been. But there's enough fluctuations that are natural that it's that it's hard to say for sure that it's deviated.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Ralph Keeling is professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

  • Ralph Keeling:

    It's like turning down the tap on a bathtub and you can see the tap is turned down just by looking at it. But it takes a while to notice that the level of a tub is filling more slow.

    If it persists, we'll see it. But it takes a little while before the ripples come down and you can really see the level changing.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Keeling's father, Charles David Keeling, developed the famed Keeling Curve — a daily reading of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels collected on the Mauana Loa volcano on the big island of Hawaii. It provides a record of global CO2 emissions.

  • Ralph Keeling:

    The record starts in 1958 and it shows very dramatically and clearly this, this oscillating pattern and an overall rise. So it's a really beautiful indicator of how the world is changing with respect to carbon dioxide.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Looking back at any historical comparisons, which of course is somewhat difficult, how might this period compare to, say, the 2008 recession or either major seismic events that maybe altered the atmosphere?

  • Ralph Keeling:

    If you go to the 2008 economic turn down, I think the global reduction in fossil fuel burning was at the level of a percent or two for total. So it's actually rather small. Now, I expect that the reduction in emissions this time around will be substantially larger.

  • Christopher Booker:

    What happens when we return to, if we return to business as usual, when people start flying again, when businesses start traveling again?

  • Ralph Keeling:

    Yeah. I mean, if the economy comes back, we'll be sort of back where we were before, except for, you know, the lessons we learned or patterns of behavior that have changed. So I think it is mostly an experiment in human behavior than the natural world does not respond to changes in greenhouse gases on a monthly or yearly time frame. It's really responding on a decades-old time frame. So there's there's no real shock from the change in greenhouse gases on the natural world. If we come out on a different trajectory, then, then 10 years hence we'll be in a different place.

  • Phil Duffy:

    I actually think that there is a lot that we can learn from this experience.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Dr. Philip Duffy is the President and Executive Director of the Woods Hole Research Center.

  • Phil Duffy:

    In the case of climate change, there is this false argument, this false dichotomy of, well, we have, we have a choice between having a safe climate and a healthy economy. And in the case of climate change, I know that that's just wrong, that it's just the opposite. In fact, the only way to have a healthy economy is to have a safe and stable climate.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Prior to joining Woods Hole, Duffy was a Senior Policy Analyst in White House Office of Science and Technology, where he helped formulate climate policy in the Obama administration.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Do you think this period will in any way alter the political conversation that surrounds mitigation efforts?

  • Phil Duffy:

    Well, I hope it does. I think the most viable lesson is listen to the experts. In the case of climate change, the experts have been jumping up and down about this for decades. This hasn't gotten any traction. And I suspect the fundamental reason is that it's hard for people to grasp that that could actually happen because we've never seen anything like it. And yet, COVID-19 is an example of the unimaginable can happen. Here it is. I mean, we knew theoretically this was possible, but nobody — on some emotional level, I think people didn't really believe it. We must not have, because we weren't ready for it. And here we are.

  • Christopher Booker:

    While the U.S. and much of Europe remain at standstill, China has started to its ease restrictions. Cars are back on the road and people are going to work. And as this animation from the European Space Agency shows, nitrogen dioxide levels have started to return as well.

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