In some ways, the dire lockdowns undertaken to stop Covid-19 have fast-forwarded us into an unlikely future—one with almost impossibly bold climate action taken all at once, no matter the cost.
Just months ago it would have been thought impossible to close polluting factories virtually overnight and slash emissions from travel by keeping billions at home. Now we know that clear skies and silent streets can come about with shocking speed.
The pandemic is a cataclysmic event so big and disruptive that it can be measured in the planetary metrics of climate change. As many as 2.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, about 8% of the estimated total for the year, will never be emitted into the atmosphere, according to estimates by the International Energy Agency. Pick any world-shaking event from 20th century history—none has produced a bigger decrease in emissions. So far, 10 million metric tons less CO2 were emitted from aviation in 2020. It took weeks, not years, for skies in polluted cities to clear as emissions dropped. People in smog-choked towns in India shared photos of the suddenly visible Himalayas, which had been obscured by pollution.
Because of how quickly our Earth changed due to fewer emissions, it would not be illogical to infer that the climate will rapidly become polluted again if we return to our pre-pandemic habits. As airplane emissions, power demand, and automobile traffic come back into our society, so will the repercussions that came along with it. So, we must take the pandemic as a lesson. We now know that our climate is resilient to our damage, but we also know that the progress we’ve made can just as easily be reversed. Our lockdown should be a lesson for how to continue our post-virus lives; reducing emissions and harmful power sources are our only hope to keep our Earth clean.