The coronavirus-related economic slowdown has already sent carbon emissions plummeting worldwide. Will that lead to a permanent reduction? Indications so far are mixed.

James Temple, a senior editor at MIT Technology Review, sums up the good-news, bad-news outlook this way:

"As with the rare instances when worldwide carbon pollution dipped in the past, driven by earlier economic shocks, diseases, and wars, emissions are likely to rise again as soon as the economy bounces back.

"In the meantime, if the virus leads to a full-blown global pandemic and economic crash, it could easily drain money and political will from climate efforts."

We're all trying to make sense of a fast-moving public health crisis that's unprecedented in our lifetimes. Obviously, it's way too early to be certain of long-term effects. However, here are some early snapshots:

  • With more people working from home, emissions related to commuting will decrease. But energy use from homes will increase, while the lights and heating/cooling systems at depopulated offices will likely remain on.
  • The Solar Energy Industries Association reports that the crisis has already caused problems for the solar power industry: "We are getting reports from our members about supply chain disruptions, project delays, sales challenges and more. It is clear that companies will feel the effects of these market disruptions. Among other problems, if this continues, it is possible that companies could be unable to meet project delivery deadlines, which could change the tax treatment or eligibility for state incentives for those projects."
  • Levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution have plunged since January 1 over Italy, especially the northern region, hit hard by the virus, reports The Washington Post. "I guess this is mostly diesel cars out of the road," said climate change economics expert Emanuele Massetti of Georgia Tech. More than half of Italy's cars burn diesel.
  • Oil prices have plunged, because of the virus and a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. Cheaper gas could hurt the market for electric and hybrid cars.
  • On the other hand, oil industry analyst David Livingston of the risk consultancy Eurasia Group told Axios: "If a combination of a prolonged oil price war, plus coronavirus fallout, leads oil industry leadership to view this as a 'lower for longer' situation, then it could lower the expected returns of future oil investment, and in fact make investments in clean energy more attractive on a comparative basis."
  • The pandemic is fundamentally altering everyday behavior for hundreds of millions of people. Some of those behaviors, such as remote working instead of physically commuting, benefit the environment. As both employers and employees get used to them and recognize their benefits, some positive changes will become permanent once we all get back to normal.

Whatever the new "normal" will turn out to be.