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Science & Environment

Halt Of Commerce Means Reduction Of Carbon Emissions — Temporarily

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

With fewer cars on the roads and planes in the sky, the global slowdown is having a big effect on the environment. Carbon emissions are dropping, but by how much, and how long will it last? NPR's climate correspondent Lauren Sommer is here to answer that.

Hey, Lauren.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: So this drop in carbon emissions, I mean, how much of a drop are we talking here?

SOMMER: Yeah, it's definitely starting to add up because we're flying less, driving less, and some industries and factories are slowing down. In February, China reduced its emissions by roughly 25% and U.S. officials estimate about a 7% reduction in carbon emissions this year, which is about the same as 2009 when there was the financial crisis. It's really important to say it's still early to tell, but if the slowdown continues worldwide through the summer, scientists say it's possible global emissions might drop 3 or 4% this year compared to last year. That would be the largest drop recorded in the last century.

CHANG: My goodness. I mean, does that mean that the world may actually be on track to cut emissions the way scientists have been recommending long before this crisis?

SOMMER: No, actually.

CHANG: Oh, OK (laughter). Don't get your hopes up.

SOMMER: Exactly. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, like extreme sea level rise and heat waves, the world needs to be cutting emissions by around 7% every year according to the U.N. Now, scientists say that will take fundamental changes different than what we're doing right now, like switching to solar and wind power instead of using coal. Countries were actually supposed to meet this fall to negotiate new agreements to cut emissions. But the U.N. has delayed that meeting until 2021 because, you know, governments are stretched very thin right now. And keep in mind, when economies come back, there could be a big rebound in emissions.

CHANG: Right. I mean, one thing I'm curious about - so many people are saying right now that the air in their cities has been amazingly clear, that you can see far into the distance, you can smell flowers instead of exhaust. What do you think - is that real, that thing that we're perceiving, or is that just our collective imagination?

SOMMER: OK. Well, people are not imagining things actually. Air quality monitors are showing cleaner air. Now, on any given day, you know, your air pollution depends a lot on the local weather conditions. But Los Angeles (unintelligible) has been showing very clear air. It's been a trend compared to this time last year. And it's actually creating sort of an interesting experiment for scientists who are looking at what would happen if we did make big changes like this. I asked an environmental scientist, Rob Jackson at Stanford University, about that.

ROB JACKSON: It's as if a third of the cars on the road were suddenly electric, running on clean electricity, and the air pollution is plummeting. It's really a remarkable experiment, and it shows the benefits of clean energy.

SOMMER: The difference he's talking about is that, you know, instead of burning gasoline, electric cars run on electricity. And California gets a lot of its power from solar and wind, so it's cleaner.

CHANG: Another thing I'm wondering about - people are reporting strange animal sightings on social media. What's going on with animals right now?

SOMMER: OK. So it's always important to say, don't believe everything that you see on social media. Some of these things have been hoaxes; some are real. But, you know, if we're seeing an uptick, it might be that people are home just observing things more and looking out their windows. But scientists are starting to study this to get some real data. You know, they're looking at animal tracking studies where they have GPS tags on animals. And right now, it's gray whale migration season on the West Coast. So if there's less shipping traffic on the water, maybe fewer whales will be struck by ships this year. I mean, that would be a big difference.

CHANG: That is NPR's Lauren Sommer.

Thank you, Lauren.

SOMMER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.