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Science Is Still Out On Climate Impacts Of COVID-19

Luke Runyon
Sunset at the Cienega de Santa Clara in northern Mexico.

The way we celebrate Earth Day this year will probably look different because of the coronavirus and the state 's stay-at-home order.  Which made us wonder: How is COVID-19 impacting the environment?

Kris Karnauskas, associate professor in the Dept. of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at The University of Colorado Boulder, joined Colorado Edition to talk about the impacts that COVID-19 has had on our climate.

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O'Toole: Since COVID-19 hit the world, many countries and states have been urging individuals to stay at home. Has there been any measurable difference in CO2 emissions since the pandemic began?  

Kris Karnauskas: CO2 emissions are tough to track down and know exactly how big they are in real time. It takes the energy and climate science community sometimes after the close of a year to look back and get all of the data and all the reports from around the world. We 're doing our best to track that in real time. Certainly, we see some big drops as the coronavirus pandemic has emerged. But we 'll have a much better handle on these numbers after the year is over.

Do we know what actions have specifically resulted in this change?

When you look around at what's different today than it was a couple of months ago, the obvious things are probably transportation and the way that we 're using our buildings and our infrastructure. So, It 's probably a wide range of things. It 's not exactly clear that energy consumption or energy production is going down in a big way for an extended period of time. We 're still inhabiting our spaces and places of work. Even though we 're not there, they 're not disconnected from the grid.

So maybe it 's related to people taking fewer trips in their cars, less plane travel?

We know that 's happening because those other activities emit other things, like aerosols, other kinds of pollution that we can measure. Those (are) a little more local — they hang around where they are emitted in places with high traffic and lots of activity. Those are dropping as well. So, we can tell that those changes in our lifestyle are happening. We would expect our carbon emissions to follow suit, at least in the near term.

What happens after the pandemic? Is this dip in CO2 emissions likely to last when stay at home orders are lifted?  

Carbone dioxide is what we call a well-mixed gas. It means exactly what it sounds like. It means that when we emit it, from a tail pipe or power plant, it becomes integrated into the global atmosphere quickly — on the time scale of days. That 's the kind of thing that 's hard to change with a short-term change in our behavior.

When we think about poster child of climate change — the main number most of us are looking at when we 're thinking about the cause of climate change — it 's the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is a little different from emissions. Emissions are like the deposit into a bank account. The concentration is like the balance of your bank account. As long as you 're putting more into the account — as long as we 're emitting more carbon into the atmosphere — then the concentration has to go up.

Back in 2019, we emitted about 37 giga-tons of carbon. If at the end of 2020, we 're able to report, say a 5% reduction in emission, that means we 're still putting 35 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So, it 's going to go up.

The concentration level of CO2 in our atmosphere is a record that has been broken every single year since we started measuring it in the 1950 's in this very careful way, on top of Mauna Loa. So, it 's going to go up again. It was 411 parts per million last year. We could be looking at 412 or 413 parts per million by the end of this year. That 's right on the same trajectory, because we are still emitting CO2, even if it 's a little bit less.

Given our current situation, have you learned anything new about human behavior, and how that relates to emissions or climate change during this pandemic?

Most of us in the climate science community have been on the same page about humans being the biggest lever on the amount of CO2. Maybe this is a confirmation for folks who were wondering. But we are in driver 's seat with climate change. What we 've learned is that apparently, we can make changes when we recognize an existential threat to our life — the world can rally. Even politics can take a secondary role in terms of recognizing what it 's going to take to ward off a major existential threat.

There 's an interesting parallel between COVID-19 and climate change. Both of these things are existential threats. One of them is just way more in our face right now.

It seems that science has been elevated in the public eye during this pandemic. People are thinking a lot more about graphs and modelling and the scientists who are coming up with solutions. Do you see this as potentially having an impact on the work you, and other climate scientists, are doing?

It 's really interesting seeing the education that folks at home are given these days on TV — things that you don 't normally hear about on the news, like exponential curves and models and especially uncertainty about those model projections. People are learning that earlier action means the guaranteed impacts can be made less severe — that mitigation might be less of a headache for all of us. People are learning that decisions have to be made in the face of uncertainty.

We have a whole range of tools at our disposal, such as observation and measurement — testing and tracking the counts of cases and deaths over time. Those things have already happened. And then trying to combine those with tools like models, which is really our only way to look into the future. And all of these are imperfect. Even the observations are imperfect. We might as well be having a conversation about climate change right now.

This conversation is part of KUNC 's Colorado Edition for April 21. You can find the full episode here.

KUNC's Colorado Edition is a daily look at the stories, news, people and issues important to you. It's a window to the communities along the Colorado Rocky Mountains.