• COVID-19’s impact on the workplace and other behaviors may lead to long-term environmental benefits.
  • Changing priorities in the workplace may choose a new set of winners and losers in the global economy.
  • Workplaces and industries are being tested in ways not seen in previous crises, possibly resulting in new norms.

Workplaces shifting to home from offices as a result of the pandemic may spark permanent changes in the way jobs get done — possibly leading to big payoffs for the environment. 

As workers in China, Italy, the U.S. and other nations report for work at their home office, fewer pollutants are being discharged from cars and factories, giving the Earth a chance to catch its breath. Space agencies have released photos showing how air pollution over China has fallen, and Twitter has been lit up with images of dolphins and fish in the now-clear waters of Venice.

In fact, early studies have shown a big drop in carbon emissions and air pollution as the epidemic spread. A report by Marshall Burke, a Stanford University professor of earth system science, found that the reduction in air pollution in China may have saved more lives than were lost in the pandemic. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air reported that the lockdown in China cut carbon emissions by 25%, or 200 megatons of CO2, because less coal is burned, less oil is refined and fewer planes are in the air.

“This has given all those environmentally-friendly options a bit of a kick,” said Jacqueline Klopp, co-director for the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University. “It has given more of a kick to the ambitious climate targets.”

Air quality in Los Angeles, Seattle and other U.S. cities has improved due to a drop in car traffic, studies say. And a working paper published last week by the European Institute on Economics and the Environment looked at preliminary data from Milan and found a “sizable” impact on pollution.

And it’s not just because of the massive reduction in people commuting to workplaces. It’s also because people are avoiding stores and malls and doing more purchases over the Internet. And some changes will be permanent.

“People may get used to online shopping and home delivery of groceries and meals,” said Christopher Jones, lead developer of the CoolClimate Network, a research group at the University of California, Berkeley. “Sheltering in place is very new for most people. Perhaps it will be a learning moment to prepare us for the climate crisis.”

Investor FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out, may also be replaced as remote conferencing proves it can replace some face-to-face opportunities. For example, Y Combinator’s Demo Day, one of the more celebrated industry events in Silicon Valley, went online this year — and it worked out just fine participants say.

Of course, the question is which quarantine behaviors will actually stick when the coronavirus has passed. In China, experts are predicting a bounce-back in pollution as the country focuses on restarting the economy.

The International Energy Agency last week predicted that the world will see the first full-year decline in oil production in more than a decade.

“The impact of the coronavirus on oil markets may be temporary,” IEA director Fatih Birol said on Twitter. “But the longer-term challenges facing producer countries are not going to go away, especially those heavily dependent on oil and gas revenues.”

Indeed, airline travel following big global events has historically resumed after a pause. Airline travel fell for about a year after 9/11 and the Gulf War, but it eventually picked back up. And emissions have historically dropped during recessions, but they end up picking up again when the economy does.

“Although emissions usually climb right back a year or two after a recession, this time may be different,” said Rob Jackson, a Stanford University professor of earth system science and chair of the university’s Global Carbon Project. “Transportation contributes almost 30% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Everyone’s learning to use Skype and Zoom instead of meeting in person.”

Still, previous recessions and global events did not have the same technologies that now exist to make remote work simpler to achieve.

The technology has really advanced now to the point that it is often more efficient to work virtually,” Jones said.