By Ainslie Cruickshank
As COVID-19 forced many workers across the U.S. to move from downtown office towers to spare rooms and kitchen tables, their commutes shrank from an average of almost 30 minutes (often in bumper-to-bumper traffic) to a few steps down the hall. A May survey of 2,500 Americans found that 42 percent were teleworking full-time—one of many dramatic changes wrought by the novel coronavirus. Though experts studying the pandemic’s economic and environmental consequences are clear that there is no silver lining to a disease that has killed more than half a million people and upended the lives of millions of others around the world, some believe the resulting lockdowns may offer lessons to apply to another, slower-moving crisis.
If remote work, for example, remains a permanent fixture for more people in a post-COVID-19 world, it could help put a dent in one of the U.S.’s largest sources of planet-warming emissions. “Transportation is a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, as well as other [regulated air] pollutants, so anything we can do to reduce such emissions is good for all of us,” says Patricia Mokhtarian, an engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who studies travel behavior and telecommuting.
Over the past few months the pandemic has had a marked impact on energy use in the U.S. as a whole. Gasoline consumption dipped by 30 percent between late March and early June, compared with the same period in 2019, according to an analysis published in Joule. There was also a “very fast and distinctive decline in electricity consumption as the shutdowns were occurring,” says Steve Cicala, an economist at Tufts University and a nonresident scholar at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. (He tracks electricity consumption to monitor the pandemic’s early economic impacts but was not involved in the Joule paper.) The graphic clearly shows that in March electricity usage dropped precipitously in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, relative to the projected consumption without the pandemic. Across the country, such usage declined by roughly 7 percent through April and May. This reduction resulted from “a very substantial” drop in industrial and commercial electricity consumption—tempered by an increase in residential demand, which could rise further as air conditioner use increases during the summer, Cicala says. (As the graphic shows, there was already an indication of both residential and commercial air conditioning pushing up electricity demand during spring.) These and other shifts in energy consumption led to an estimated 15 percent reduction in the U.S.’s daily carbon dioxide emissions, the authors of the Joule paper found.