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Pacific Northwest may see temporary drop in emissions due to social distancing

Experts say with fewer cars on the road, Washington state will likely see a drop in overall emissions due to the stay-at-home order and social distancing.

SEATTLE — A small silver lining of coronavirus social distancing measures is we are likely experiencing a temporary drop in emissions, experts say.

NASA satellite images show significant drops in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air above China after lockdowns went into effect. Similar satellite imagery from the European Space Agency shows reductions in Italy, which is also keeping people home to control the deadly virus' spread.

Amy Snover, director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, said the northwest is likely experiencing some reduction in emissions as states put "stay home" orders in place.

“Basically, we’re not using our fossil fuel infrastructure as much as we typically do,” Snover said.

She said we likely won’t notice quite as steep a drop as China, because we have more clean power sources in place. But taking thousands of cars off the road still has a big impact.

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“We have about 45% of Washington’s greenhouse emissions are from transportation,” she said. “…I know I’ve seen a lot less traffic on the roads, and I assume the emissions are down from that.”

There is some research out there on a "rebound effect" – emissions coming back higher after an event like this, as folks try to jumpstart the economy and industry. Snover said that’s tough to predict, but she would expect a quick return to at least previous levels.

“Since most of our activities are tied to fossil fuel infrastructure, we’d expect them to come right back up again,” Snover said.

But there is something that has her hopeful: many businesses worked to find creative solutions for remote work during this time, and if some of those lessons remain after coronavirus, we could be at least slightly better off than before.

“There’s a big push among climate scientists to travel less for work, and try to do more conferences and work like that remotely,” Snover said. “And it’s quite challenging because we all know there’s big benefits from being together in person. But I think we’re going to be more and more creative at trying to find ways where we can get those connections we need when it’s not safe to be together, and I think hopefully we’ll learn some lessons. It’s may be a silver lining out of a very black cloud.”

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