Is the coronavirus saving the planet?

Since the beginning of the global coronavirus lockdown, the natural world has blossomed in the absence of people and industry. While a third of the world’s population are confined to their homes and economic activity has been paused, carbon emissions have reduced to unthinkably low levels.

However, before celebrating this reduction in emissions, it is worthwhile to consider whether the effects of the Coronavirus would have been so detrimental should we have made a bigger effort to tackle air pollution in the years before the pandemic. Air pollution increases the risk of respiratory problems, which are regarded as an underlying health issue leading to Covid-19 related deaths. Research suggests that there is a direct link between areas of extreme air pollution and high levels of Covid-19 fatalities.

It is clearer now more than ever, that the pressures on nature imposed by burning fossil fuels, and road and air traffic, are too much to bear. It is almost as if the environment is sending us a message, showing us how the natural world is the victim of our economic activity. In a post pandemic world, what will we have taken from this natural experiment and will we begin to put the environment first?

Experts believe that carbon emissions from the fossil fuel industry could fall by an unprecedented 2.5 billion tonnes this year (a 5% reduction) as coronavirus causes its biggest drop in demand. Contrary to the expected rise in carbon emissions in 2020, the past few months have seen significant cuts, amounting to 18% in China between February and March – a reduction the equivalent of a years’ worth of emissions in a small European country. Meanwhile in Europe, carbon emissions have been cut by between 40% and 60% over recent weeks.

Due to air travel being put on hold, the emissions produced by global air traffic have halved, and in global hubs such as the UK, Hong Kong and Switzerland, air traffic has reduced by 90% from last year. This resulted in airline CO2 emissions dropping by 31% in March, (about 28 million tonnes of carbon dioxide less), the equivalent of taking six million cars off the road for a year.

It is the absence of cars on the road that appears to be making the most noticeable difference. Road traffic in the UK has fallen by 70%, as rigid travel restrictions mean that people have no reason to drive. In Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, excessive pollution from cars has been a constant battle in recent years, sometimes resulting in closing schools to contain the problem. However, since lockdown measures have been in place, residents have experienced an unprecedented transformation in their air quality index. Also in Sao Paulo, South America’s most populated city, citizens have noticed clearer horizons and calmer streets replace the normal smoggy skies and notorious traffic queues. Global levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant linked to cars, have hit a record low, according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

Delhi, the world’s most polluted city, is one of many capitals enjoying cleaner air since coronavirus restrictions were introduced. Before the pandemic, Delhi experienced dangerously high air quality index levels, usually about 200 on a good day, sometimes reaching 900 during peak pollution periods, (anything over 25 is regarded as unsafe by the World Health Organisation).  However with the removal of 11 million cars from the roads and factory production ground to a halt, air quality index levels fell below 20. This change is evident as the skies are much clearer and bluer.

Residents in the cities of northern India (particularly the Punjab state), and in North Eastern Pakistan have reported sights of the snow-capped Himalayas from 200 km away, due to less polluted skies. This rare sight was unimaginable before the coronavirus lockdown as these mountains haven’t been visible from such a distance for thirty years. 

In the north of Italy particularly, NO2 levels have fallen by about 40%. Previously, northern Italy was a pollution hot spot in Europe, caused by smoke from a cluster of factories getting trapped against the Alps at the end of the Po Valley. Now, citizens are experiencing an unprecedented improvement in their air quality and clarity. This picture shows the changing levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air in Milan from 2019 to 2020.

Venice, a city that for decades has been buckling under the weight of excess tourism, is suddenly thriving in the absence of human traffic. The canals are now a transparent green instead of a murky brown as the mud usually churned up by punting has settled. Fish beneath the surface are visible to locals and swans have returned. Many cities across the world have noticed wildlife making unusual appearances. There have been sightings of kangaroos in the streets of Adelaide, deer roaming in central japan, and pumas frightening citizens the city of Santiago in Chile. Even in Chernobyl, after thirty years since its mass evacuation, the European lynx has returned to the area, as have brown bears, elk, deer and wolves.

Swans in the Venice canals.
Wild horses returning to the Chernobyl exclusion zone

However, we cannot be too quick to celebrate these cuts as a climate victory. These changes have been caused by economic meltdown in which thousands of people are losing their livelihoods, not as a result of the right government decisions in terms of climate policies. The reason we want to see emissions decline is because we want a more liveable planet and happier, healthier people. But instead, a decline in emissions has been accompanied by a huge shock to world health, the stability of the economy and created a less liveable planet.

The signs from China do not indicate a brighter future for us, as levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution have begun to creep back up as the country goes back to work with factories, businesses and power plants re-opening and traffic returning. This suggests that the effects on the planet are only temporary and come with a huge human, social and economic cost.

Environmental advocates point out that any benefits are likely to be short-lived. “Closing down our entire economies for a period of weeks or months is not going to get us toward decarbonising,” says Peter Betts, previously the UK’s lead climate negotiator.

Unfortunately, just as the climate challenge started to build momentum, the cause has had to be put on hold as world leaders prioritise tackling coronavirus and economic recovery. Climate talks have already been delayed and new policy initiatives postponed. The convention centre that was set to host the UN climate talks in Glasgow in November has been converted into a hospital for coronavirus patients. Governments and world leaders have attention for only one crisis right now.

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