By Lily Owen
Image credit: the New York Times
It seems ironic and perhaps even disrespectful to look for positives in the midst of such a global crisis, but the most unexpected silver lining has emerged: a significant decline in the world’s air pollution. As nations battle to protect their economies, healthcare systems, businesses, and citizens from the coronavirus pandemic, one crisis has become the opportunity for a large scale experiment in how to tackle another. Its climate impact might be unintended – the result of stricter quarantines and travel restrictions – but, if paid attention to, the facts can offer a great deal of insight into how much impact our behaviour carries in the climate crisis.
Peter Gleick, climate scientist and founder of the Pacific Institute in Berkeley, California, has noted how “the pandemic is fast, shining a spotlight on our ability or inability to respond to urgent threats.” The rapid pace at which coronavirus has spread is phenomenal, with cases rising in the thousands every day and many being untested and thus unaccounted for. This grabs attention: its urgent, loud, visible, and in your face every day via television screens and social media. Climate change is not. Rob Nixon has theorised the concept of ‘slow violence’ to describe environmental threat, operating on a different time-scale, out of sight and thus out of mind. We do not see day to day the impact we as humans are having on the wellbeing of our planet, but more like year by year, decade by decade. It does not hold our attention as it does not appear to be the violence that we have come to know as a fast, immediate spectacle.
COVID-19, at its worst, kills human lives by invading your respiratory tract, lungs, and alveoli, distracting and damaging your immune system to the overwhelming point where your blood pressure starts to drop and organs begin to fail. By stark contrast, climate change kills us by a build-up of air pollution that increases the risk of premature birth, contributing to damaged organ systems, encourages respiratory and circulatory diseases; rising global temperatures limits the effectiveness of certain medications, can encourage organ failure, and encourage the transmission of diseases. Public health infrastructure and services are disrupted by extreme weather; rising sea levels and increased ocean acidification will reduce fishing and aquaculture, instead, exacerbating water shortage. Climate change kills us from behind, weakening and picking at infrastructure, services, and existing vulnerabilities in a domino effect that will eventually reach humans. It is a slow violence, but violent nonetheless.
Compared to the world’s response to coronavirus, climate change can be just as well planned for and deserves just as urgent a response, it just doesn’t rub itself in our face in the same way. The correlation between lockdown enforcements and air pollution has made climate change visible and granted it a newfound pace, hopefully, worth our attention. ESA’s Sentinel-5P satellite readings have found that, over the past six weeks, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels over Asian and European cities are far less than the year before. Nitrogen dioxide is not a greenhouse gas, but is a pollutant all the same, produced form car engines and industrial power plants that are generally responsible for driving global warming. Its reduction is thus highly significant and has shown visible effects in a number of specific areas. In Italy, Venice’s canals, typically murky and brown, now run clear from a lack of boat traffic as sediment remains on the ground. NO2 levels in Milan and other parts of the northern region, where the virus has been most widespread, has fallen by around 40%. China’s comprehensive lockdown procedure, especially in the city of Wuhan, has seen air pollution levels drastically reduced from a lack of air, train, and road traffic. South Korea has also observed a drop in NO2 levels, having previously suffered from high recordings impacted by China’s nearby industry, as well as their own coal-fired power plants.
However, as Gleick points out, “it would be nice if we could improve our environment without having to cripple our economy.” These effects are by no means permanent and do not mean a reversal of climate change. Scientists have clarified that the environmental long term implications of this pandemic will rely on how countries respond to the ensuing economic crisis. The International Energy Agency has warned that the virus will weaken global investments in clean energy and the focus on industry emission targets. Pioneering this trend, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic – a nation that relies heavily on nuclear energy and coal – has already urged the European Union to abandon its landmark ‘green law’ that focuses on carbon neutrality, due to the virus outbreak. Endorsed by President Donald Trump, Major U.S. airlines have also asked for billions of dollars in government aid in the face of bankruptcy, as the industry’s emissions are expected to triple by 2050.
Furthermore, with more people self-isolating and remaining indoors, it is expected that energy being used within the home will be rocketing. Heating a cold house will more than offset any energy saved by not driving to work and so, our household carbon footprint also requires attention if we are to make the most of these reduced global emissions.
The silver lining here is exposure. The urgent measures taken around the world to prevent the spread of coronavirus has brought to our attention the reality that human behaviour can impact and correct our environmental neglect. It is a happy coincidence that, in a time of crisis, a light at the end of another tunnel can be envisaged if we just keep these measures in mind. Of course, as society looks towards the end of this pandemic, it inevitably seeks celebration, probably in the form of holidays that involve flights, cruises, road-trips, and more travel: more pollution. Just as social responsibility is finally being accepted by the public to adopt social distancing and self-isolation, our climate responsibility cannot be forgotten and social behaviours cannot be separated. Looking to a ‘post-corona’ society, infrastructure will be devastated, overstretched, with economies, health services, and other businesses needing a reboot. Do we want to just go back to normal, or is this the chance to restructure in support of the progress that has, inadvertently, already been made.