American Airlines passenger planes parked due to flight reductions made to slow the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Tulsa International Airport in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on March 23, 2020.

The Big Fix

Coronavirus has changed how we transport goods and ourselves. But will it last?

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that what’s “normal” can change dramatically and quickly to protect public health — and those lessons may be good for the climate, too.

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

American Airlines passenger planes parked due to flight reductions made to slow the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Tulsa International Airport in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on March 23, 2020.

Credit:

Reuters/Nick Oxford/File Photo

In Sweden there’s a word for the feeling of guilt when you take a plane ride that wasn’t exactly necessary: flygskam, which means “flight shame.”

The culture of flight-shaming in Sweden is so ingrained, there is an offshoot concept called smygflygare, meaning “sneak flyer.” It describes a person who says they’re traveling by train but secretly takes a plane instead. The flygskam movement is seen as partly responsible for the 9% drop in Swedish domestic flights last year. 

But the coronavirus pandemic has done more to curb flying than any social movement ever could. Global air travel has plummeted since the crisis started. Airlines around the world have cut up to 95% of trips. Just about every part of the transportation sector has been upended by the pandemic: leisure travel, commuting and global shipping, to name a few. 

Related: Coronavirus is changing how people think about fighting climate change

Although many travel habits and systems will likely return to normal once the pandemic subsides, climate advocates hope the disruption could be a catalyst for systemic changes in how we transport our goods and ourselves. At least some of the behavioral changes resulting from social distancing measures may “stick,” they say — and that could be good news for the climate, too. 

Swedish singer-songwriter Staffan Lindberg, who wrote a 2017 article supporting flygskam, said he hopes the pandemic’s effects on global flying can be a moment of reflection for frequent flyers.

“This coronavirus thing is like a rehearsal for being more sustainable in the future. I hope so.”

Staffan Lindberg, Swedish singer-songwriter

“I think people will get used to not flying,” said Lindberg, who is now living under lockdown Uppsala. “This coronavirus thing is like a rehearsal for being more sustainable in the future. I hope so.” 

Even though social distancing rules won’t be permanent, our reluctance to fly may outlast the pandemic. After September 11, 2001, another massive grounding event, it took three years for flying to return to normal levels.

Disruptions to global supply chains

Aviation isn’t the only transportation sector being upended by the pandemic: The crisis is also affecting international shipping. 

Mandarin Shipping, a Hong Kong-based international freighter shipping line, said its business is down 70% since January, and the Port of Virginia said it expects a 15-30% downturn in business. The American Association of Port Authorities estimated a 20% drop in business in the US. 

The virus has disrupted industrial activity around the world. Disruptions in manufacturing powerhouses like China have had ripple effects in supply chains around the world. 

“Countries are going to feel worried about relying on other countries for vital inputs. This experience is going to show people that maybe it's not desirable to be buying foods from all around the world and shipping foods all around the world.”

Amy Meyers Jaffe, Council on Foreign Relations

“Countries are going to feel worried about relying on other countries for vital inputs,” said Amy Meyers Jaffe, the director of the program on energy security and climate change at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This experience is going to show people that maybe it's not desirable to be buying foods from all around the world and shipping foods all around the world.”

Related: Is coronavirus reshuffling the global power deck?

Jaffe argues the pandemic will be a wake-up call for countries and encourage them to bring some manufacturing and agriculture jobs closer to home. 

Even before coronavirus, shipping had taken a hit because of tensions over tariffs and the US-China trade war. Jaffe wonders whether the pandemic will be like putting oil on the fire,  encouraging the trend of less trade already underway. 

A boost for remote work

The pandemic has also impacted the everyday movements of billions of people. Government orders to stay home have resulted in drastic cuts to people’s day-to-day travel — particularly for commuting to and from work, which plays into another growing global trend of more remote work.

“I think it could be a big catalyst that needed the economy to push itself towards remote work. This could be the real tectonic shift.”

Prithwiraj Choudhury, Harvard Business School

“I think it could be a big catalyst that needed the economy to push itself towards remote work. This could be the real tectonic shift,” said Prithwiraj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School specializing in remote work.

Good online tools such as Slack and Zoom, along with high demand from workers have made more companies turn to online work, said Choudhury. A 2018 global report from OWL labs, a video conferencing company, found more than half of companies surveyed allow some degree of remote work, up from previous years. 

Now with the pandemic, almost every company that can has adopted work-from-home policies. 

“Since it's playing out across almost every country, it'll be much more global and people will see the benefits [of remote work] in a multitude of ways,” Choudhury said. 

Related: What can COVID-19 teach us about the global climate crisis?

Across sectors, across the world, carbon emissions are down. At the virus’ peak in China, emissions dropped 25%, according to data from the  Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.  Analysts are predicting a similar drop for Europe’s biggest polluters. 

Given the dramatic decrease in emissions, the pandemic may help some countries hit targets under the Paris Agreement that seemed out of reach pre-COVID-19. 

But will habits stick?

Most of the changes will be short-lived. But echoing Choudhury, Jillian Anable, transport and energy expert at the University of Leeds, says if some of the behaviors stick, it would help countries cut emissions in their transportation sectors. 

“What this shows is that we can adapt. There is a lot of travel that we do that is discretionary and we can pull it back.”

Jillian Anable, University of Leeds

“What this shows is that we can adapt,” said Anable. “There is a lot of travel that we do that is discretionary and we can pull it back.”

The pandemic has resulted in people shopping less frequently and generally sticking closer to home. These actions would help us cut carbon emissions if they become long-term habits.

“We need people to shop locally. We need people to do much more leisure locally,” Anable said. “We need people to do online shopping and work from home and do business trips from home where they can.”

Anable hopes that the virus will change what’s considered “normal” when it comes to how we move around. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that what’s “normal” can change dramatically and quickly to protect public health — and maybe the climate too.

“We can't use this crisis as a reason to ignore the other crisis, which is climate change, because that hasn't gone away,” Anable said. “We've just got two crises now. And we need to make them work together.”

Related Content

close

We use cookies to understand how you use our site and to improve your experience. To learn more, review our Cookie Policy. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies and Privacy Policy.

Ok, I understand. Close