Much is being made of the environmental impact of COVID-19, but will the reduction in travel make a difference in the long-term?
Take a look at your favorite social media platform, and you’ll quickly discover users sharing the purported environmental impact of COVID-19. Hazy skies have disappeared over major cities. Clear waters have appeared where once rivers and canals were murky. And wildlife is popping up in places where it’s not usually seen.
Is this environmental impact something to be celebrated? Is it the beginning of a longer-term change for the better? For answers to those questions (and others), see below for your guide to the environmental impact of COVID-19.
The Reduction in Emissions is Real
There’s nothing false about the reduction in emissions seen around the world. Those clear skies over major cities are backed by reduced levels of nitrogen dioxide as tracked by experts.
For example, eastern and central China saw a 10–30% reduction in nitrogen dioxide levels in January and February as much of the country went into quarantine in response to COVID-19. In New York City, levels of pollution have dropped nearly 50% due to shelter-in-place policies. Similar drops have occurred in northern Italy, the United Kingdom and Spain — all areas COVID-19 has hit hard.
The Reduction Won’t Last
While it’s nice to see emissions drop in the short-term, there’s no indication that these drops will continue in the long-term. A pandemic is a decidedly short-term event after all. Compare the significant reduction in air travel after 9/11 to the COVID-19-related reduction — it took almost 3 years (until July 2004) for the air travel industry to match its levels from August 2001. Expect a similar bounce back from this pandemic. If these nitrogen emissions came in response to a new technology or a major trend, one could expect these reductions to last longer.
Positive impacts on the environment are typically something to celebrate. But the best impacts on the environment are sustainable, long-term impacts. The environmental consequences of COVID-19 are more a short-term novelty than long-term progress.
Also, while some are framing the environmental impact of COVID-19 as a silver lining, it’s hard to find a silver lining when thousands around the world have died due to the pandemic. Environmentally friendly initiatives are designed to promote sustainability and life on earth for centuries to come. There’s no benefit to exchanging a short-term loss of life for a positive impact on the environment.
Air Travel Represents a Small Percentage of Emissions
It’s also important to remember just how much air travel contributes to overall emissions. The transport industry as a whole makes up about 23% of all emissions around the world. But 72% of transport’s contribution comes from driving rather than flying. Only about 11% of transport’s emissions come from air travel.
People staying at home and off the streets is having a far greater impact on the environment than the reduction in air travel.
Environmental Impact Has Been Improving
There’s good news for the environment in all of this: Well before COVID-19, the air travel industry was already taking steps to reduce its (comparatively small) impact on the environment.
In October 2016, the nations of the International Civil Aviation Organization announced an effort to significantly limit emissions from international flights between 2021 and 2035. This initiative calls for:
- More efficient aircraft
- More efficient flight paths
- Reduced delays
- Low-carbon alternative fuels
- Emissions offsets outside the industry
While the air travel industry is taking a short-term economic hit due to COVID-19, it will bounce back as the pandemic dissipates in the coming months. Long-term plans for a reduced environmental impact will stay in place long after the short-term environmental impact of COVID-19 is gone.
Count on JTB Business Travel
Before, during and after COVID-19 and its effect on global travel, JTB Business Travel is here to support companies and their Business Travelers. As we deal with this period of uncertainty, the JTB team is ready to help you plan travel or make adjustments to existing plans — no matter the circumstances.
Contact us today to learn more about our common sense approach to business travel.