April 1, 2020

Carbon Impacts of COVID-19

By Rachel Ashley

One of the unintended side effects of global efforts to flatten the curve is the decline of greenhouse gas emissions around the world. Early estimates show that emissions temporarily declined by 25% in China and Europe over just a four-week period.

While some of this impact is likely to be reversed as the economy returns to cruising altitude, it's worth stopping for a moment to note what is driving these changes, and to think about what parts of #covidlife we might not mind carrying forward.

Travel: Big wins

πŸ‘ Working from home. Companies and employees are learning to operate effectively online. Avoiding the commute might be making us happier (and richer). Plus, keeping the car in the driveway avoids greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

πŸ‘ More video calls, fewer flights. Flying is the single most carbon-intensive activity we engage in. Airlines are grounding planes: Lufthansa, for instance, is running only 5% of scheduled flights. It's incredibly hard to miss life experiences we've planned and looked forward to. But to be honest, some of us are breathing a sigh of relief at being able to say no to some meetings and yes to more time with our loved ones.

Food & Drink: Likely improvement

πŸ‘ Eating more plants (and beans). If you're like most of America, you may have embraced a newfound love for beans, lentils, canned and frozen vegetables, rice, and pasta. These pantry staples are non-perishable, nutrient and flavor-packed, and low in emissions. Triple threat!

πŸ‘ More cooking at home. Home chefs around the country are honing their skills #distractibaking and #quarantine cooking. Although what you eat makes a bigger difference than where you eat it, from a carbon perspective, cooking at home generally results in less waste and lower energy footprint than eating out. More Alison Roman recipes, please.

πŸ– More delivery. Dining in a restaurant vs. ordering in isn't a clear-cut carbon choice. While kitchens may be using less energy when the front of house is closed, more packaging and delivery orders drive up energy use. Some up, some down.

Home & Building Energy: Likely improvement

πŸ‘ Spending more time outdoors. With long days in front of our screens, time we can spend in nature re-energizes us. It also gives our energy bill a chance to rest. When we're out of the house, we're not using resources at home - especially if we're good about unplugging and powering down devices when we're out.

πŸ‘ Keeping offices (and retail stores, and factories, unfortunately) closed. Office and commercial buildings are far less efficient at using energy than residential buildings. Spending more time at home means more efficient use of energy in buildings.

πŸ‘Ž More energy use at home. Home is now work, playground, restaurant, and everywhere in between. More time at home (and cooped up kids) means more loads of laundry, more dishwashing, more lights, more streaming, more heating and cooling. You gotta live somewhere.Β That said, there's some evidence that peak load balancing (spreading out energy use throughout the day)Β is helping lower the use of the dirtiest power plants.

Shopping & Leisure: Mixed bag

πŸ‘ Less consumption. Consumers buying less stuff is hard on the economy. But it's good for the planet. Buying less stuff means less energy and resources used for production and less waste.

πŸ– More e-commerce. With shelter in place orders in effect, people around the country are turning to e-commerce. While avoiding the drive to the store saves emissions, last mile delivery can drive them up. Skip express shipping for non-essential items if possible to keep emissions low.

πŸ‘Ž More streaming. Honestly, thank goodness for streaming. With more time at home, and more addictive content than ever, binge watching your favorite show is far from the worst thing you could do. The reality is that the internet does require energy, and more bandwidth requires more energy.

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