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August 12, 2020

Mobility Data Illuminates Climate Change Pathways for a Post-COVID-19 World

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed human activity around the world, quieting nearly every aspect of pre-pandemic modern life. The effects of this global pause have been felt by civilians and researchers alike: skies have cleared, wildlife has spread, and even the ambient seismic noise produced by humans has shrunk by half. As the human race enjoys a taste of a cleaner, quieter future, some are wondering: how serious has the impact been – and will it last? New research by a team led by scholars from the University of Leeds sought to explore this question using mobility data from smartphones.

The project began when Piers Forster, director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate at Leeds, and his daughter began examining the anonymized smartphone mobility data made widely available by Apple and Google in recent months. Working with a larger group of researchers, they analyzed the relationship between this data and emissions data for ten key greenhouse gases and air pollutants between February and June across 123 countries.

The immediate results were disheartening: the team found that the 10-30% reductions in emissions seen during the pandemic are likely stemming from temporary factors – such as stay-at-home orders – and are unlikely to last beyond the pandemic in the absence of structural change. To that end, the researchers used the data to model options for post-lockdown recovery pathways that piggyback on the current pause to implement lasting reforms.

“The choices made now could give us a strong chance of avoiding 0.3° C of additional warming by mid-century, halving the expected warming under current policies,” Forster said. “This could mean the difference between success and failure when it comes to avoiding dangerous climate change. The study also highlights the opportunities in lowering traffic pollution by encouraging low emissions vehicles, public transport and cycle lanes. The better air quality will immediately have important health effects – and it will immediately start cooling the climate.”

Many of the co-authors also see the results indicating the pandemic as a crucial exit ramp for runaway greenhouse gas emissions.

“Both sobering and hopeful, the flash crash in global emissions due to lockdown measures will have no measurable impact on global temperatures by 2030,” said co-author Joeri Rogelj from the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, “but the decisions we make this year about how to recover from this crisis can put us on a solid track to meet the Paris Agreement. Out of this tragedy comes an opportunity, but unless it is seized a more polluting next decade is not excluded.”