Societal shifts due to COVID-19 reveal large-scale complexities and feedbacks between atmospheric chemistry and climate change

WashU affiliated author: Randall V. Martin (Dept. of Energy, Environmental, and Chemical Engineering)

Abstract: The COVID-19 global pandemic and associated government lockdowns dramatically altered human activity, providing a window into how changes in individual behavior, enacted en masse, impact atmospheric composition. The resulting reductions in anthropogenic activity represent an unprecedented event that yields a glimpse into a future where emissions to the atmosphere are reduced. While air pollutants and greenhouse gases share many common anthropogenic sources, there is a sharp difference in the response of their atmospheric concentrations to COVID-19 emissions changes due in large part to their different lifetimes. Here, we discuss two key takeaways from modeling and observational studies. First, despite dramatic declines in mobility and associated vehicular emissions, the atmospheric growth rates of greenhouse gases were not slowed. Second, it demonstrated empirically that the response of atmospheric composition to emissions changes is heavily modulated by factors including carbon cycle feedbacks to CH4 and CO2, background pollutant levels, the timing and location of emissions changes, and climate feedbacks on air quality.