Covid-19 has been good for the climate – will it last?

24th Apr 2020
Covid-19 has been good for the climate – will it last?

Pollution monitoring satellites have detected significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide over China. (Credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using data processed by the European Space Agency)

It has taken a global pandemic for residents of Delhi to marvel at blue skies. The story on everyone’s minds and lips is the coronavirus outbreak.

It has ravaged economies, kept millions of people indoors, and caused widespread fear over what the future holds. As people deal with their emotions amid boredom and psychological stress, they seek a silver lining. Reports have shown that humans’ taking a break from “business as usual” has also given the planet a break.

China’s carbon emissions were cut by over a quarter during its lockdown, Venice’s waterways saw swans and dolphins for the first time in years, and in Mumbai, newly hatched sea turtles made their way to the ocean in peace.

Environmentalists are glad to see the rapidity that nature resurges, but remain sceptical that these changes will cause lasting effects. Time reports that “any sustainable reduction in emissions and pollution will need to happen in a way that doesn’t totally splinter society.”

Once the crisis is over, governments may put climate-mitigating initiatives on the backburner as they scramble to boost their economies after months of stock market volatility. Before the outbreak, many nations were committed to reducing emissions, divesting from fossil fuels, and supporting green infrastructure projects. Now, they may instead go for the quick fixes utilizing infrastructures already in place in order to get people back to work.

According to The Diplomat, “In China, coal consumption for February was down 36 per cent and CO2 emissions dropped 200 million tons. However, the temporary fall is well on its way to be undone by the coal guzzling stimulus that has followed.” Though China had been on track to reduce coal consumption at home, its Belt and Road Initiative was building the infrastructure for coal power elsewhere before the outbreak.

A nationwide US study conducted at Harvard showed that long-term exposure to PM 2.5 air pollution leads to a higher death rate from COVID-19. People living in major cities who are used to heavy pollution exposure are finally seeing what cleaner air looks like. Reports of elderly people plagued with respiratory problems in India feeling better show the immediate value of reducing emissions.

The virus’ death rate varies between countries. Germany has shown an alarming low death rate, while Italy has been overwhelmed by record-breaking statistics since the virus hit its shores; some scientists suggest that air pollution may be a factor for the varying death rates between nations.

People around the world are beginning to accept that there will be a new normal after coronavirus, and some are hopeful about the changes it will bring. Bill Gates believes that innovation fostered during the battle against the coronavirus can also overcome climate change.

“That idea of innovation and science and the world working together – that is totally common between these two problems, and so I don’t think this has to be a huge setback for climate,” stated Gates during a live-streamed conversation with Chris Anderson of TED.

The long-term effects of dealing with coronavirus are yet to be seen. The city of Wuhan in China, the epicentre of the outbreak, recently opened back up for close to normal operations, but people are still wary of being out, and grappling with the loss of loved ones. The psychological effects of the outbreak and subsequent lockdowns will last long into the future and may slow economic growth.

Though stores being shuttered and people altering their consumption habits has been good overall for the environment, disposal culture has been bolstered due to the virus and may continue long after it subsides. Fear over hygiene is causing paranoia among people and businesses alike. People have stocked up on supplies of bottled water, used a variety of single-use disinfectant wipes, and received millions of disposable food packages now that restaurants only offer takeout orders.

The way the virus has played out has exposed the fragility of economic systems around the world and the rapidity at which life, as we know it, can change. The post-coronavirus world will not look like the pre-coronavirus world in key ways.

This moment in history necessitates mass cooperation for the sake of public health, and leaders may learn the value of the precautionary principle; preparing before things get out of control to avert massive loss of life and collective psychological trauma.

The climate crisis could hit the world as rapidly and collectively as coronavirus has; leaders can act now as an investment into the future – and do a better job of preparing for climate disaster than they did in preparing for this pandemic.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall
Grit Daily Staff Writer,The Muslim News Environmental Columnist

 

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