How The COVID-19 Outbreak Has Reduced Carbon Emissions

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Venice, Italy in March 2020 [GIACOMO COSUA—NURPHOTO VIA GETTY IMAGES]

Danielle Lonczak, Karen Ternosky, Robert Fisher, and David Taveras

So far, 2020 has been a long and bumpy road for a lot of Americans, and now COVID-19 has made many of them pull over. Literally.

Drastic reductions in time behind the wheel are common, according to interviews done by students in CMM 224 Environmental Journalism. Almost everyone interviewed reported similar drops. These changes in driving habits have of course been the result of so many people now being required to work from home. Also, many of the places people normally drive to are closed.

Cynthia Hernandez, a human resource officer in Syracuse, regularly drove 150 miles a week before the outbreak. That’s been reduced to about 20. Her husband, Abraham Hernandez, a sales associate for a furniture store that is currently closed, has seen his weekly mileage drop from 175 to 10.

“I have no reason to go out other than buying essentials and that isn’t a daily thing,” said Mr. Hernandez.

Before the coronavirus arrived, Ann Marie Rhodes, a service delivery manager in Andover, Mass., drove about 75 miles each week. Last week she drove four.

Her husband, Brian Rhodes, a software engineer, went from driving 220 miles each week to about 50.

“I may have used the car once since last Sunday,” said Ms. Rhodes, “and cancelled two flights, and we’re not going out to eat and making a lot of food at home.”

While the primary reason for people driving less—the coronavirus pandemic—has already caused a great deal of suffering and damage, there has also been what some are calling an environmental silver lining to the crisis. Pollution levels have dropped significantly.

Venice’s Grand Canal appears more transparent, according to the New York Times. The air in many parts of China and Italy is considerably cleaner. In US cities such as Seattle, Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, “the fog of pollution has lifted.”

The shutdown of industrial activities across the world has resulted in an extreme reduction in the use of fossil fuels and even a fall in global carbon emissions. In less than two months, mother nature has begun to “clean house.”

Students in CMM 224 wanted to find out directly how people’s energy usage has changed recently, and whether they imagine that these enforced reductions in personal carbon footprints might last beyond the end of the coronavirus pandemic.

They began by asking about miles driven, but also asked about other ways they might now or in the future be more green.

Susan Sanford-Weiss, a care manager in Syracuse, said: “A tank of gas is lasting a lot longer currently” due to her inability to drive to work. She was driving around 20-40 miles each day, but now she is driving 1-2 miles a week, and that just to visit the grocery store.

Shari Lonczak, a daycare provider, said she had not left the house in five days. Lonczak lives very close to Route 31, which has all the stores she goes to, so the little amount of driving to go there does not add up to much.

Kevin Freeman, a project manager in Teaneck, NJ, is also driving 20-25 miles less each week. “Since it hit, my carbon footprint has been reduced,” he said. “I drive and move around less.”

“I used to be more likely to make a short drive to the store or wherever I needed to go,” said Shannon Clark, an Apple tech support person in Davidson, NC. Her reason for driving less: “There is less of a desire to go out and drive somewhere because I try not to be around people as much.”

“For me, I don’t have a reason to leave the house anymore,” said Ryan Treat, an after-school child care assistant in Auburn, NY. “So, I don’t get in the car and drive around and put that stuff into the environment.”

While people may be driving less, their energy consumption at home has often increased.

Domenica Oliveri, of Syracuse, said either way “it’s a lose-lose” for her family. Being home means the TV is going, laundry is being done, computers are on all day, “which means our electric bill will be higher and we have no steady income to make up for that.”

Tony Oliveri, married to Domenica, believes a balance needs to be found. “Some people think their carbon footprints are declining,” he said, “but in response to theirs declining, somewhere else is increasing such as distributors needing to deliver more food so people can eat, which results in cooking using gas, and electricity to run the home or the job location.”

Christine Oswalt, Program Coordinator of Disability Support Services at Le Moyne College, said that while she is using less energy at her office due to it being closed, her home energy use has spiked. “Being home, it seems like my energy use habits have increased because our TV is on now during the day, computers are running and the dishwasher is used more because we are eating three meals a day now at home,” she said.

Brian Anderson, a project manager of Auburn, NY, said that “energy usage within the house has without a doubt increased. I will be doing a puzzle in the living room,” he said, “and the TV is on in the background. It’s really on all day If I’m watching the news or if it’s just for background noise.”

Brian Pompa, a Le Moyne Communications and English major, commented on how his life at home has turned to more electronic use.

“I have to use my laptop constantly, so that’s constantly being charged,” he said. “For a while, before online classes started, what I would do is just play video games constantly, watch Disney+, movies, I’m on my TV, I use my computer, stuff like that all the time, so the electricity is definitely where my carbon footprint has gone up, because of everything. But, I will say, my family and I have been trying to take at least a few hours a week to just take away from the screens and the computers, just so that we’re not totally using electricity 24/7.”

Alyssa Carpenter, who lives in Mililani, Oahu, Hawaii, said that her TV and video gaming has increased significantly. “I play every day and watch tv a lot,” she said.

Even though the use of energy at home has increased, some people are trying to keep it to a minimum.

“Some of the ways that we are saving while being in quarantine is turning off the lights, keeping the furnace at a steady tempo, and getting an on-demand water heating system,” said Christopher Weiss, an academic counselor in Syracuse. “But I think we could do a lot more.”

Mary Schad, Interim Director of the Student Success Center at Le Moyne, said: “I use less electricity since I’m home during the day now and it is lighter out for longer periods of time. I am doing more laundry, but in general my TV consumption time is the same.”

Although a long-term reduction in carbon emissions is essential in the face of climate change, some experts predict that the current drop in levels is temporary, and that once people and businesses are allowed to go back to their normal activities, emissions may even shoot up above previous levels.

Some people interviewed for this article agreed.

“I think it will be back to normal,” said Brian Anderson. “When I can finally work again…I won’t be focused on my carbon footprint because it is essential that I make up for lost time.”

Nonetheless, others expressed hope that the environment will gain a lasting benefit from the new habits of consumption that many people seem to be forming during this time.

“I think [carbon emissions] will remain smaller,” said Schad. “The pandemic has put a lot of things into perspective, and has made me realize how adaptable we as a society can be when absolutely necessary.”

[Additional reporting by: Savon Baldwin, Tristan Blanks, Nahenahe Damas, Victoria Hernandez, Travis McKenzie, Matt Micglire, Rosa Oliveri, Maddie Rhodes, and Christina Tran.]