Map of COVID-19 infections from the CDC
Note: I’d like to point out that none of this information is to be taken as advocating for pandemics. Pandemics are terrible, devastate families, and kill thousands – there’s no getting around that. This article is simply intended to also analyze some of the possible benefits. To reiterate, pandemics are on-net bad, even if they do cut emissions somewhat. Recently, every news channel, radio station, and online forum is filled with talk about COVID-19. We’ve heard about the deaths, the infections, and the hospitalizations. But one component that we haven’t seen on the news about COVID-19 — and other pandemics — is the effect on the environment. There are two key ways in which pandemics affect the environment: transportation emissions and recessions.
Blogger Name – Arvindh M.
The first point I want to talk about is transportation emissions. Intuitively, pandemics decrease transportation usage, which in turn decreases emissions. For this reason, Marshall Burke, Assistant Professor of Earth System Science at Stanford, finds that COVID-19 specifically has cut emissions in China by about 15-17 μg/m³, in turn saving around 4,000 infant lives and 73,000 elderly lives from being cut short. Furthermore, pandemics also decrease oil prices due to lowered production, choking out dirty oil. Thus, Tobechi Agbanike et. al of the Latin American Economic Review finds in 2019 that a decrease in oil price decreases net CO2 emissions.
The second way that pandemics affect the environment is by causing recessions. Sharon Begley of Reuters writes in 2013 that because pandemics devastate airlines, tourism, sales calls, and consumer demand, they crush “businesses dependent on employees or customers moving from point a to point b” and thereby the economy. Right now, we see this happening in the US economy, as COVID-19 wipes out over three years of stock-market gains. Because recessions strongly affect consumption and production, Dr. Mary E. Davis of the American Journal of Public Health finds that air quality significantly improves during the aforementioned downturns. For example, Sid Perkins of Science Magazine quantified in 2015 that 83% of the decline in US emissions over the 2007-2013 timespan was due to the Great Recession.
However, it is important to note that economic downturn arising from pandemics could also increase emissions in the long term by preventing environmental legislation. To put it simply, when a recession hits and people lose their jobs and subsequent income, they aren’t thinking about the environment. For this reason, Matthew E. Kahn and Matthew J. Kotchen of the National Bureau of Economic Research find in 2010 that an increase in the unemployment rate, like one from a recession, significantly decreases the importance of the environment in the public psyche.
Overall, pandemics affect the environment through decreasing transportation emissions and causing recessions. These impacts have the potential to save thousands of lives; however, those lives should not be used to understate the massive negative impacts of pandemics on humanity.