Meaghan Weeden & Diana Chaplin | May 12, 2020 | 5 min read

It’s undeniable that the spread of Coronavirus has shaken up millions of lives around the world. With government shutdowns and mandates forcing people to work from home and to travel only when necessary, many are hunkering down in the safety of their homes in order to “flatten the curve,” a term we’ve consistently heard over the past few months.

So, why are experts touting this method? Simple: because it works. If we can reduce the number of people who need urgent care at once we can ensure that the healthcare system can appropriately manage and overcome the pandemic.

How This Applies to Carbon and Sustainability

Thanks to these widespread mandates, we live in a unique moment, one that demonstrates just how much our daily activities affect the environment and people around us. While we wish this situation wasn’t happening, we do recognize that there are valuable lessons to be gleaned—namely, that it is possible to limit anthropogenic pressures on the climate.

The planet, not unlike our health care systems, can sustain our resource needs if we can avoid overburdening it quicker than it is able to maintain ecosystem balance.

Which begs the question, can we apply this “flatten the curve” goal to climate change, the other crisis that’s been bubbling under the surface for decades?

Atmospheric CO2

This chart may look familiar, but it’s not Coronavirus, it’s the rise in global carbon emissions over the past century. The increase here is perhaps less alarming on any particular day since it’s occurred over decades instead of weeks, but its ultimate effects are no less concerning.

Despite this upward trajectory, the current reality of suspended travel has created a temporary reprieve in carbon emissions.

In China, air quality improved significantly—with 21.5% more good air days during the height of their shutdowns in February. How did this happen? Economic activity came to a temporary halt and domestic flights dropped by 70%, China burned 36% less coal and emitted 36% less nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and 25% less carbon dioxide (CO2). Additionally, nearby Hong Kong emitted 22% less NO2 during the same time period.

In Italy, CO2 emissions dropped an average of 5-10% and NO2 has decreased by 10% every week of outbreak started there. As a result of sharply decreased boat traffic in Venice, the water in the canals is crystal clear for the first time in centuries.

Venice Canals

Energy and Transportation are Sustainable Opportunities

What can we learn from all of this? In Italy, NO2 emissions are largely caused by idling diesel engines—think daily commutes and gridlocked traffic. NO2 is produced any time diesel or gas are burned and magnifies the warming effects of other greenhouse gases like CO2. So, it follows that if we transitioned our trucking infrastructure to EV and sourced our power from renewable energy, we could drastically reduce NO2 emissions around the world.

That’s just the beginning: experts over at the World Resources Institute (WRI) advocate for a multi-pronged approach to addressing carbon emissions and evolving our infrastructure.

This means updating our current energy systems, with an emphasis on improving the efficiency and interconnectedness of the electrical infrastructure, reducing the cost of storing renewable energy (costs have already dropped 76% since 2012 so we’re on the right track), and creating an integrated energy system that we can depend on.

In a recent report, the International Energy Agency found that simply by increasing our energy efficiency, we could reduce global electrical demand by 20%. How? Global adoption of efficient lighting is a great example. In 2017, the U.S. passed a milestone of installing over 1 billion LED and CFL lightbulbs, saving 142 million tons/yr. of CO2 emissions. This is just one country and one area of improvement. Imagine if we set our greatest minds to the task of improving the efficiency of every energy-reliant aspect of our lives. It could be revolutionary—and (relatively) cheap.

wind turbines

Forging a Renewable Path Ahead

When the coronavirus threat fades, our economy is going to need a major industrial surge to get us back on track. Why not use this moment to finally build the renewable energy infrastructure we need to transform our economy, and to establish the public transportation system that would drastically lower our emissions and cut our dependence on fossil fuels?

This would benefit the workforce too. Currently, many are working from home, which reduces the number of cars on the road and the number of flights that are filled by people headed to meetings and conferences. While this has certainly not been an easy shift for everyone, it is reducing emissions. In fact, according to The Climate Group, working from home could potentially reduce 300 million tons of CO2 emissions every year.

Furthermore, alongside any efforts to reduce carbon emissions, we can invest and support nature-based solutions for reducing the excessive carbon already in the atmosphere, such as planting trees, conserving old-growth forests, and transitioning to more sustainable forms of agriculture.

Around the World

When it comes to carbon emission, land plants (including trees) and the ocean have absorbed about 55% of the excess carbon we’ve released into the atmosphere. Scientists predict they will eventually absorb another 25% until they reach their capacity, leaving 20% in the atmosphere. This excess carbon warms the planet, changes the phenology and range of plants (and spurs growth), and acidifies ocean waters, putting marine life at risk.

Why does this matter? Because CO2 is one of the gases that controls the Earth’s temperature. CO2, methane, and halocarbons are greenhouse gases that absorb and then release energy emitted by the Earth (including heat). Some of this re-emitted energy is released into space, but plenty of it remains here and warms our planet—in fact, CO2 causes about 20% of the greenhouse effect on Earth. The rest is caused by water vapor (50%), clouds (25%), and aerosols and other greenhouse gases (around 5%).

When we’re stuck at home, it can feel like there’s a lot we can’t do. Rest assured, there are plenty of things that we still can do for the climate.

  • We can plant more trees, which are natural carbon absorbers (a mature tree can absorb up to 48lbs of carbon a year).
  • We can continue to recycle properly and phase out our consumption of single-use plastics (recycling just 1 lb. of plastic #1 saves 22.9 kWh of energy and 47.4 lbs. of CO2 emissions).
  • We can commit to reducing the 1/3rd of food that is wasted globally by composting, shopping smart, and meal planning.
  • We can incorporate more plant-based meals into our diets.

Most of all, we can continue to show up, every day, for each other and for the planet. Change is accomplished when a series of small actions adds up to something great. A flattened curve isn’t just an abstract scientific concept, it’s a healthy future in which our children can thrive.

We plant trees on 4 continents around the world. Want to choose where yours are planted?