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COVID-19: A Rare Opportunity for Science?

7/30/2020
Researchers at Stanford and other institutions hypothesize outcomes of the pandemic’s unprecedented socioeconomic disruption and outline research priorities for advancing our understanding of humans’ impact on the environment.

Like the legendary falling apple that hit Isaac Newton and led to his groundbreaking insight on the nature of gravity, COVID-19 could provide unintended glimpses into how complex Earth systems operate, according to a new Stanford-led paper. The perspective, published July 29 in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, hypothesizes outcomes of unprecedented changes in human activity wrought by worldwide sheltering orders, and outlines research priorities for understanding their short and long-term implications. Getting it right could revolutionize how we think about issues as broad as greenhouse gas emissions, regional air quality, and the global economy’s connection to poverty, food security and deforestation, according to the researchers. It could also help ensure an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable recovery from the coronavirus pandemic while helping prevent future crises.

“Without distracting from the most important priority – which is clearly the health and well-being of people and communities – the current easing of the human footprint is providing a unique window into the impacts of humans on the environment, including a number of questions that are critical for effective public policy,” said lead author Noah Diffenbaugh, the Kara J Foundation Professor at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

For example, the question of how much electrifying the vehicle fleet will improve air quality has until now relied heavily on theoretical arguments and computer models. The scale of recent emissions reductions, however, provides an opportunity to use atmospheric observations to check just how accurate those models are in simulating the impact of pollution-reduction interventions such as electric vehicle incentives.

Predicting pandemic outcomes
The researchers note that although many of the initial impacts of COVID sheltering, such as clear skies resulting from reduced pollutant emissions, could be perceived as beneficial to the environment, the longer-term impacts – particularly related to the economic recession – are less clear. To understand the impacts across both short and long timescales, they propose focusing on cascading effects along two pathways: (1) energy, emissions, climate and air quality; and (2) poverty, globalization, food, and biodiversity.

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