The near-global halt to travel, tourism and shipping sparked by the worldwide response to the coronavirus have produced a short-term silver lining: cleaner air and clearer waters. 

Greenhouse gas emissions and smog from New York City to London to Beijing have fallen to near 10-year lows with far fewer cars and trucks choking city streets. 

But that doesn't mean that the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis ⁠— hardly the means by which serious environmental analysts, scholars, and advocates hoped to achieve climate action ⁠— will somehow turbocharge the globe's glacial steps toward reducing humanity's impact on the environment. 

The bluer skies and waters might best be seen as a reminder ⁠— or a glimpse of what could be achieved. Because in the wake of the worldwide financial meltdown, experts say, climate action will likely only get harder.

"Despite local reductions in pollution and improvement in air quality, it would be irresponsible to downplay the enormous global health challenges and loss of life as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic," Petteri Taalas, secretary general of the UN's World Meteorological Organization, said in a statement. "Past experience suggests that emissions declines during economic crises are followed by a rapid upsurge. We need to change that trajectory."

China's government is considering relaxing some emissions restrictions to boost the country's recovery from the virus. And a host of U.S. environmental laws and rules contain exemptions for emergencies ⁠— and, even when they don't, regulators tend to look the other way. 

"The environmental authorities have generally made it clear that they will take no enforcement action against actions that could impede the immediate response to a major disaster," Michael Gerrard, senior counsel at Arnold & Porter, and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School wrote this week.

And as emissions and other pollution potentially spike as countries seek to recover from the financial and health crises, costly efforts to transition to cleaner forms of energy and transportation are also expected to suffer, experts say. Electricity demand, for example, has plummeted with the plunging economic activity, sapping the urgency of new investments in solar and wind power. And with oil prices cratering to levels not seen since 2002, prices at the pump have fallen below $1 in parts of the country, eliminating what's often seen as an incentive for buying electric vehicles.

"It's not a favorable climate for new investment," said Reed Hundt, CEO of the Coalition for Green Capital, a nonprofit that works on and advocates for clean energy investment. "You can't snap your fingers and create demand." 

There are also disruptions to supply chains. Travel restrictions, for example, have kept workers from reaching job sites, and efforts to contain the virus by shutting down cities have forced factories to a halt. High-profile efforts by General Motors and Ford to heavily invest in electric vehicles over the next decade will likely be disrupted, as both automakers have been forced to shutter their factories. 

"Because of the travel restrictions you maybe can't construct projects for offshore wind, because offshore wind is super complicated, and so you have experts coming in from Europe," said Jigar Shah, co-founder of Generate Capital, a cleantech financing firm. "You have supply chains from China for solar. And even though we have plenty of inventory in the United States right now, solar is typically a second-half of the year business. So people are expecting supply chain shortages in June."

A range of analysts and environmental advocates are calling on lawmakers to make clean energy projects a central piece of expected economic stimulus packages. House Democrats, for example, are reportedly looking to include clean energy tax credits, and Senate Democrats have insisted that any federal aid for the struggling airline industry should depend at least in part on continued efforts to reducing the sector's emissions.

"Governments are drawing up stimulus plans in an effort to counter the economic damage from the coronavirus," Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, wrote on the organization's website. "These stimulus packages offer an excellent opportunity to ensure that the essential task of building a secure and sustainable energy future doesn't get lost amid the flurry of immediate priorities."

The Trump administration has generally been skeptical of clean energy priorities like wind, solar, and especially electric vehicles. The White House in December detonated a bipartisan tax deal in part because it contained tax credits that would have boosted EVs. Stimulus measures that include ambitious measures to address climate change may prove a challenge.

But, industry experts and analysts say, before the spread of COVID-19 and the resulting economic impacts, the fundamentals around clean energy investment were already favoring big increases in investment for solar, wind, and similar priorities.

"Even though this moment will be worse than people thought, even though it'll probably put us into a recession, I don't think this moment in time is going to change the fundamental dynamics in the long term," said Mark Gottfredson, a partner at Bain & Company. "A utility-scale solar plant can now provide electricity just about as cheaply as natural gas even with natural gas at low prices. Wind in the right places is economically viable. And battery costs are coming down ⁠—  battery technology has gotten to a point where it is competitive to link it up with solar and with wind and store and smooth-out the flows of electricity … The economics makes sense for us to have a zero-emissions grid, to eventually retire the coal plants and eventually the natural gas plants. It's economics that are driving it, not this moment in time."

Updated March 23: Removed reference to dolphins returning to Venice canals after new reports emerged contradicting that report.

More In
No more stories