Coronavirus shutdowns are lowering greenhouse gas emissions but experts say they’ll roar back

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The global struggle to slow the spread of the coronavirus has brought with it canceled flights, closed businesses and a quickly escalating economic slowdown that could be devastating to millions. It is also certain to shrink greenhouse gas emissions this year, according to climate scientists.

But does that mean we are turning a corner in cutting planet-warming pollution?

If history is any indication, no. The slide in emissions will be temporary, experts say. What’s more, scientists and environmentalists worry the pandemic will at the same time undermine government and industry’s resolve to cut emissions in the long term.

Experts are predicting the health crisis will cause global emissions to drop for the first time since 2009, during the Great Recession. But a look back over the decades shows a steady rise in greenhouse gases punctuated by temporary dips caused by economic downturns, including the 2008 global financial crisis and the oil shocks of the 1970s. Pollution bounces back predictably once the economy starts improving again, with the resurgence in industrial activity, travel and consumption more than offsetting any short-lived benefits to the climate.

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Graphics released by NASA show significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide over China.
Graphics released by NASA show significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide over China.

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