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Coronavirus lockdowns have sent pollution plummeting. Environmentalists worry about what comes next.

NBC News logo NBC News 4/7/2020 Luke Denne
a group of clouds in the sky over a city: Image: Los Angeles Air © Ted Soqui Image: Los Angeles Air

Traffic-free roads, plane-free skies and widespread brick-and-mortar closings have made the planet a beneficiary of the coronavirus pandemic — but only in the short term.

Li Shuo, senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace in Beijing, said it's not time to "pop the champagne corks" just yet.

"It's hardly a sustainable way to reduce emissions," he said.

2020 was hailed by many climate experts as a critical year to take decisive action to limit the worst impacts of global warming. The year started with international attention focused on catastrophic wildfires and floods.

The pandemic has overshadowed those issues — but with an environmental silver lining. The sharp reductions documented in carbon emissions and air pollution caused by coronavirus-related lockdowns have offered a sort of preview of the kind of improvements that can be made when drastic actions are taken.

But those changes could easily be wiped out by efforts to quickly ramp up economies, including governments around the world that may be more willing to relax regulations in an effort to jumpstart companies.

Despite one estimate showing that China — the world's biggest polluter — emitted 25 percent less carbon over the same four-week period than the previous year, Shuo remains skeptical about any lasting changes. He said he's worried that efforts to reignite China's economy might end up making the coronavirus epidemic a step backward for climate efforts.

a close up of a map: Image: average nitrogen dioxide concentrations from air pollution across France © ESA Image: average nitrogen dioxide concentrations from air pollution across France

That's because if history is anything to go by, China might not take the greenest option.

Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, said the country responded to the 2008 financial crisis with the "biggest, dirtiest stimulus program in the history of mankind."

"It meant that for the following three years there was rapid growth in CO2 emissions, and we can now say with quite a bit of certainty that the overall impact was to nudge China on a more carbon-intensive, fossil fuel-intensive economy path," Myllyvirta said.

How other nations around the world handle their response to the current economic shock will also be critical.

There are some glimmers of hope that ambitious climate action could play a part. European Union leaders have announced that the recently announced Green Deal must be at the heart of an "intelligent recovery." In spite of pressure to soften its green ambitions due to the pandemic, the E.U. has begun a consultation on tightening their carbon reduction targets by 2030.

Things look less promising in the U.S. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency confirmed that the Trump administration had relaxed the enforcement of regulations on polluting industries to help them deal with the pandemic. Obama-era EPA chief Gina McCarthy called the announcement "a license to pollute."

Meanwhile some industries in the U.S. and Europe are pushing to relax other regulations.

The plastics industry, recently on its back foot over ocean pollution fears, has worked to turn the tide on plastic bag bans.

Though the science is far from clear, plastic makers have long lobbied that single-use plastics are safer and more sanitary than reusable alternatives. Plastics Industry Association CEO Tony Radosewski recently stressed the need for more single-use plastics to combat the spread of the virus in a March 18 letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

And it seems that many lawmakers are listening.

Plastic bag restrictions have been lifted across the country. In New York and Maine, recently introduced bans have been delayed. In Connecticut, plastic bag fees have been removed, while in New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu prohibited shoppers from bringing reusable bags and ordered stores to make disposable bags available.

Likewise, the crisis has seen a boon for the auto-industry with the Trump administration seizing the moment to fulfill a campaign promise to weaken Obama-era emissions standards. Automakers in the E.U. are also lobbying for a delay in tightening emissions restrictions because of the crisis. And in China, plans for tougher standards look likely to be delayed to help automakers struggling with the impact of the pandemic.

Airlines including Delta and Jetblue started off the year promising carbon offsets amid a growing culture of "flight shaming." The airline industry is now also lobbying for government bailouts and regulation relief.

With governments around the world focused on the crisis at hand, there are also fears that the diplomatic push to refocus global efforts on reducing emissions could slip.

The United Nations COP 26 climate conference, scheduled to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, has been postponed until 2021. It has been hailed as the most important climate gathering since the Paris climate accord was signed in 2015. Under that agreement, countries are due to come back to the table with new pledges that will limit warming to the agreed level of "well below 2 degrees" Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and ideally below 1.5 degrees.

It's "abundantly clear that the countries of the world are falling short of the goals of the Paris agreement," says Dr. Simon Evans, deputy editor of Carbon Brief, a climate science website.

"Current pledges have the world on track for warming of about 3 degrees" Celsius, he added.

Concerns have already been raised by environmentalists after Japan — the world's fifth-biggest emitter — became the first G7 country to announce their new targets. The plan, however, simply maintains the country's existing emission reduction pledges. The World Resources Institute, a research nonprofit based in Washington, criticized the Japanese approach for falling "woefully short."

A successful outcome in Glasgow therefore looks likely to require extensive preparatory work and diplomacy. As Evans points out, the Paris agreement was "built on years of diplomatic efforts on the part of the French government and the whole French diplomatic service over the course of about three years."

Although the postponement of the climate conference does provide welcome extra time for work toward a successful summit to take place, he argued that it is "inevitable that countries' preparatory work toward their new pledges" will have been affected.

So while the world looks likely to emerge from the pandemic — at least temporarily — with cleaner air and lower emissions, "any positive environmental impact" from the crisis relies on us "changing our production and consumption habits towards cleaner and greener," Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, wrote this week.

"Only long-term systemic shifts will change the trajectory of CO2 levels in the atmosphere," she said.

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