We Asked a NASA Scientist: Has COVID Affected Climate Change?

Earth Climate Change Art Concept

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a significant decrease in air pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, but its impact on climate change was minimal. Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions were only about 5 to 10% due to the continued operation of power plants for heating and cooling. Despite slight decreases, greenhouse gases continued to accumulate in the atmosphere, emphasizing the necessity of ongoing emission reduction efforts.

Has COVID affected climate change?

This is a question we actually get a lot because one of the first things that people notice in terms of the environment during COVID was that the air seemed to be a little bit cleaner.

And when scientists started looking at the data, we did see a decrease in air quality pollutants like nitrogen dioxide. In some cases, those decreases were as large as 30%. So pretty significant.

But when we started looking more at greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, the gases that stay in the atmosphere a really long time and caused climate change, we saw that the decreases were much more subtle, more on the order of 5 to 10%.

That’s because the shorter-lived air pollutants that are harmful to human health are emitted more strongly from things like traffic, while the climate polluters, like carbon dioxide, come from things like power plants. And during COVID, while we weren’t driving as much going into the office or meeting up with friends, we were still heating our homes. We were still using air conditioning during the summer. So those decreases in the gases that caused climate change were much more subtle.

Greenhouse gas emissions decreased a little during the first year of COVID, but not enough to make a lasting impact. Less travel and cars on the road meant improved air quality. But greenhouse gases that cause climate change only decreased a little because we were still heating and cooling our homes, so these gases continued to build up in our atmosphere. NASA climate change scientist Lesley Ott tells us more about what scientists discovered. Credit: NASA

So has COVID affected climate change? The answer is a little bit.

We saw small decreases in emissions of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, but they continued to build up in our atmosphere much like in any other year.

That means that we all have to continue to work hard to reduce emissions of those gases if we really want to turn climate change around.

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1 Comment on "We Asked a NASA Scientist: Has COVID Affected Climate Change?"

  1. Clyde Spencer | June 11, 2023 at 11:14 am | Reply

    “… we saw that the [CO2] decreases were much more subtle, more on the order of 5 to 10%.”

    That is the average over the course of a calendar year. Individual monthly emissions were much larger, with April 2020 anthropogenic emissions decreasing more than 18%. Yes, the atmospheric CO2 concentration continued to increase. However, the rate of increase and the seasonal peak in May were no different than the preceding or following year. The question should be, why were there no measurable impacts of the decreases?



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