Why the Coronavirus Lockdowns Won’t Save the Planet

It’s tempting to feel that the coronavirus is the planet’s revenge against us. Arguably if we had remained small nomadic groups of locavorian hunter-gatherers, our environmental impacts would have been localized and minor, but our modern “advances” – including a penchant for procreation combined with health care extending our lifespan, consumerism, and industrialization – have poisoned our planetary petri dish.

But no, the planet isn’t a sentient being. It isn’t taking revenge; it’s our own behavior that’s come back to bite us in the behind. Nor is the sigh of environmental relief caused by the coronavirus forcing vast populations of people to stay home likely to be sustained. All it will likely do is give us a breather in which we can realize the gargantuan dimensions of our impact on the en.

There is no indication that humanity at large has exploited the involuntary bout of navel-gazing at home to decide to forgo all non-essential consumption. And if they haven’t, the second the lockdown is lifted, we can expect business and damage to resume as usual.

The lesson from the coronavirus supply chain crunch doesn’t seem to be “let’s learn to get by with less.” It’s “we’d better stock up now before the Joneses buy up all the toilet paper and beer.”

Blue today, gone tomorrow

So the blue skies reappearing over the industrial hubs of the modern world as most heavy industries reluctantly shut down made headlines, but they are likely to return to their normal color of particle-studded gray when the lockdowns end and emissions resume. The same applies to the wildlife shyly appearing on the fringes of urban centers: once cars regain the roads, they will vanish, or get run over.

Satellite images show significant decline in smog over the modern world in February and March compared with the same period of 2019. That is nice, but what difference does it actually make to the bigger picture if the levels of industrial emissions, including pernicious nitrous oxide, diminish because of coronavirus shutdowns, if they resume the day after? It’s interesting but not significant. In the bigger picture, it will be a blip. Some economists suggest that if anything, businesses will likely ramp up emissions as they strive to recoup their lost income and return to the black.