Societal shifts due to COVID-19 reveal large-scale complexities and feedbacks between atmospheric chemistry and climate change

Joshua L. Laughner, Jessica L. Neu, David Schimel, Paul O. Wennberg, Kelley Barsanti, Kevin W. Bowman, Abhishek Chatterjee, Bart E. Croes, Helen L. Fitzmaurice, Daven K. Henze, Jinsol Kim, Eric A. Kort, Zhu Liu, Kazuyuki Miyazaki, Alexander J. Turner, Susan Anenberg, Jeremy Avise, Hansen Cao, David Crisp, Joost De GouwAnnmarie Eldering, John C. Fyfe, Daniel L. Goldberg, Kevin R. Gurney, Sina Hasheminassab, Francesca Hopkins, Cesunica E. Ivey, Dylan B.A. Jones, Junjie Liu, Nicole S. Lovenduski, Randall V. Martin, Galen A. McKinley, Lesley Ott, Benjamin Poulter, Muye Ru, Stanley P. Sander, Neil Swart, Yuk L. Yung, Zhao Cheng Zeng

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


The COVID-19 global pandemic and associated government lockdowns dramatically altered human activity, providing a window into how changes in individual behavior, enacted en masse, impact atmospheric composition. The resulting reductions in anthropogenic activity represent an unprecedented event that yields a glimpse into a future where emissions to the atmosphere are reduced. Furthermore, the abrupt reduction in emissions during the lockdown periods led to clearly observable changes in atmospheric composition, which provide direct insight into feedbacks between the Earth system and human activity. While air pollutants and greenhouse gases share many common anthropogenic sources, there is a sharp difference in the response of their atmospheric concentrations to COVID-19 emissions changes, due in large part to their different lifetimes. Here, we discuss several key takeaways from modeling and observational studies. First, despite dramatic declines in mobility and associated vehicular emissions, the atmospheric growth rates of greenhouse gases were not slowed, in part due to decreased ocean uptake of CO2 and a likely increase in CH4 lifetime from reduced NOx emissions. Second, the response of O3 to decreased NOx emissions showed significant spatial and temporal variability, due to differing chemical regimes around the world. Finally, the overall response of atmospheric composition to emissions changes is heavily modulated by factors including carbon-cycle feedbacks to CH4 and CO2, background pollutant levels, the timing and location of emissions changes, and climate feedbacks on air quality, such as wildfires and the ozone climate penalty.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2109481118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number46
StatePublished - Nov 16 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Air quality
  • COVID-19
  • Earth system
  • Greenhouse gases
  • Mitigation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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