The coronavirus is a murderous plague that augurs economic ruin, yet this tragedy has also given birth to a host of long-sought-after environmental benefits. Public health restrictions have turned the tide in a number of critical ways. After decades of troubling data, some key environmental indices are showing signs of improvement. Covid-19 has reduced pollution, saved lives, and changed our worldviews.
Fewer carbon emissions
The shutdown associated with Covid-19 is reducing demand for oil and gas. Fossil fuels are the primary source of climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions and airborne particulate matter so any reduction in the burning of hydrocarbons benefits the planet. Restrictions on the industry, air travel, and vehicular traffic have pushed nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to a 70 year low. Compared to the same period in 2019 we have seen a 25 percent decline in CO2. In China, Europe, and the US carbon emissions are expected to decline by at least 5 percent this year. That is five times the rate of decline we saw in the great recession of 2009.
The combination of the coronavirus and falling oil prices are also shrinking fossil fuel infrastructure. Hundreds if not thousands of oil companies are going bankrupt. The pandemic is contributing to the demise of the fossil fuel industry while buoying hope for climate action.
Less particulate matter
We have seen dramatic improvements in air quality due to the effect of public health restrictions. All around the world the air is cleaner and people’s respiratory and cardiovascular health has improved as a result. The air over China became much cleaner after the country shut down in an attempt to contain the Covid-19 Coronavirus. In addition to China, Italy, Germany, UK, and the U.S. are among the many nations that have benefited from improved air quality due to the shutdown. Cleaner air around the world is even evident from space.
India, home to 21 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities, has also witnessed dramatic declines in air pollution due to the coronavirus. For the first time in modern memory, people can see the stars at night and the Himalayas are now visible during the day. As reported by CNN government data shows that New Delhi has seen a 71 percent decline in NO2. Similar declines have been observed in other Indian cities including Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, and Mumbai.
Although hundreds of thousands have died from this pandemic, the global reduction in airborne pollutants has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of others. Declines in the atmospheric levels of nitrogen dioxide have reduced the risks of asthma, heart attacks, and lung disease. A recent Harvard study reaffirms other research that suggests reductions in airborne particulate matter saves lives. The calculations of Marshall Burke, an Earth system scientist at Stanford University suggest that the abatement in Chinese air pollution alone has saved as many as 77,000 lives.
Less water pollution
Less industrial effluents and motorboat traffic is resulting in cleaner and clearer water. Marine wildlife is returning to places they have not been in years. The Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment released data on April 6, 2020, that showed air and water quality across the country significantly improved during the first three months of 2020.
Fish can now be seen swimming in the canals of Venice. “The canal is definitely clearer, you just have to look at the canal when water is very calm. There are no boats, there is no traffic. Definitely, it is cleaner,” said Venice resident Serguei Michtchenk.
As people spend more time at home during the shutdown, animals have returned. Wild boar are more visible in Italy and Spain. In South Africa, lions can be seen
sleeping on roads once frequented by safari-goers. Bears can be seen more frequently across the U.S., coyotes have been seen on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and deer have been spotted near the White House.
Vehicle strikes are another major source of animal mortality. There are 190 million motor vehicles in the U.S. alone and fewer vehicles on the road dramatically reduces roadkill. According to one source, one million animals get hit by motor vehicles every day in the U.S.
This plague is also impacting our world views and there are signs that our isolation and despair may give birth to a kinder more caring world. While gun-toting angry people venting their frustration in state capitals have garnered headlines, there are millions of others quietly helping their elderly neighbors and donating to food banks.
We know that lower levels of pollution make us healthier and smarter. Covid-19 may also make us more compassionate. The fact that we have been prevented from seeing people face to face has increased our appreciation of the need for social contact and this is causing us to value each other more. Some believe that this will lead to a more spiritually attuned world. This is the view of the surrealist American filmmaker, painter, musician, singer, sound designer, and photographer David Lynch. He recently said:
“For some reason, we were going down the wrong path and Mother Nature just said, enough already, we’ve got to stop everything,” Lynch said about the coronavirus outbreak. “This is going to last long enough to lead to some kind of new way of thinking.” Lynch said he is hopeful people around the world will emerge from their quarantines “more spiritual” and “much kinder.” The prolific director continued, “It’s going to be a different world on the other side and it’s going to be a much more intelligent world. Solutions to these problems are going to come and life’s going to be very good. The movies will come back. Everything will spring back and in a much better way probably.”
It is hard to celebrate a devastating pandemic, however, sometimes there may be truth to the facile adage that good things come from bad. This terrible plague has brought sickness and death but it has also cut pollution and saved lives. Even corruption is being stymied by Covid-19. As reported by the LA Times, it is now harder to launder dirty money due to the pandemic.
However, we cannot afford to be naive. The real significance will be determined by whether or not this pandemic augurs lasting change. If we go back to business as usual the suffering and death we are enduring will have all been in vain.
The Guardian shared the head of the NRDC and former chief EPA administrator Gina McCarthy’s musings on what we may learn from this experience. “You wonder if people will want to go back to what it was like before,” she said. “The pandemic has shown people will change their behavior if it’s for the health of their families. This has been the lost message on climate, that it’s a human problem, not a planetary problem. We have to show you can have a stable environment and your job, too.”
We have been given a historic opportunity to act, the question is will we garner the awareness and marshal the courage to alter our perilous trajectory? Ecologist Thomas Lovejoy described our times as, “a serious wake-up call.” “We bulldoze into the last remaining places in nature and then are surprised when something like this happens. We have done this to ourselves by our continual intrusion into nature. We have to re-chart our course,” Lovejoy said.
Along with disease and death, we can expect an economic downturn the likes of which we have not seen since the Great Depression. However, this coming economic collapse may very well be our salvation. We must change and to do so we must find the courage to hope that we can save ourselves from ourselves by learning to live in harmony with nature. If we take advantage of this opportunity, 2020 may very well be remembered as the year we made a historic shift. If we do not it will be remembered as the year we ignored our final warning.