Awful and lethal as coronavirus is, the pandemic is producing some good news about the other big threat – climate disruption.
Sheltering at home means a sharp drop in the burning of fossil fuels, the primary source of CO 2 which drives global warming and climate disruption.
Reducing pollutants in the air may save lives, based on research into the 1918 flu pandemic in which one-third of humans were infected and an estimated 50 million died.
During that pandemic, cities that relied heavily on coal, primarily to generate electricity, experienced significantly higher mortality rates than demographically similar cities with less polluted air.
Tiny particles in the air from burning coal, diesel and other fuels have been linked to higher death rates among the infected a new national study by Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed.
Here are examples of how reduced fossil fuels use during this pandemic is both a human and an ecological benefit:
- Gasoline sales are expected to plunge to levels lower than when America had a third fewer people than the almost 330 million people today. So says the Oil Price Information Service (OPIS), which surveys 17,500 service stations. Tom Kloza, the service's top energy analyst, said, "We are likely to see weekly gasoline demand numbers [for March] drop to levels last witnessed in the Nixon administration, and we'll see those lower levels in April."
- Miles driven on American roads must already have fallen sharply from job loss and shelter at home orders. Americans drove almost 3 trillion miles in January.
- Gasoline sales are collapsing. Americans burned about 142 billion gallons of gasoline last year. If sheltering at home continues through the end of 2020, that indicates 2020 gasoline consumption will fall by more than half.
- Fuel economy for cars in America averaged about 25 mpg last year. If gasoline consumption falls by half the effect on the volume of air pollution would be the same as raising automobile fuel efficiency to 50 mpg during the pandemic.
Each gallon of gasoline burned generates about 20 pounds of CO2, the greenhouse gas that is a major factor in climate disruption caused by global warming. The reason that eight pounds of gasoline generate 20 pounds of CO2 is explained here.
- Oil production will have to cut back and in some places even shut down because the world has pretty much run out of places to store oil. Not only are underground storage in salt domes near the brim, so are metal storage tanks on land and oil tankers at anchor in ports around the globe.
- New car sales are plummeting. Hyundai, which together with its sister brand Kia sold 4% of all new cars in America last year reported a 40% drop in March sales. That's not surprising because the two brands focus on lower-income customers who will be hard hit by the loss of jobs. Porsche, a very upscale carmaker, announced that its sales fell 20% in March.
- As people reduce driving it means fewer fossil fuels will be used to fabricate cars, from turning bauxite into aluminum and iron ore into steel stamped into parts.
- The price of what Donald Trump calls "beautiful coal" has fallen to its lowest level in more than a decade, down by half since 2018.
- The spot price natural gas, coal's biggest competitor to fuel electric power stations, fell 42% from its last high in November 2019.
- Cement production also will decline. Worldwide making cement generates about 6% of all fossil fuel pollution. The United States produces about 2% of global production.
Inefficient old jumbo jets are being retired, meaning less air pollution. Both KLM and Qantas stopped flying 747s at the end of March. Fuel-efficient long-haul planes such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus 350, together with the Boeing 777, will be used when the pandemic has passed. The German airline Lufthansa shut down two of its discount sister carriers, retired a host of its jumbo and older jets and announced it expects it will be "years until worldwide demand for air travel returns to pre-crisis levels." If companies and trade associations make wider use of video conferencing services such as Zoom, then global travel may be subdued for many years. Even with more fuel-efficient jet engines, that would be good for the environment.
None of these developments is good for workers in the affected industries and those that supply those industries. But the reduction in fossil fuel burning should have a positive impact on climate disruption, which unchecked will likely kill many millions of Earthlings as seas cover land, while droughts, fires and flooding wreak havoc and melting tundra unleashes ancient viruses unknown to modern people.