In the midst of the economic and health tragedy posed by the Coronavirus pandemic, there is an unexpected bright side: the improvement in our environment as a result of the massive slowdown. With that comes a responsibility as well — to recover and rebuild in a way that helps deal with the challenge that will persist once the virus is under control.
The environmental changes, in so short a time, are already evident and dramatic. In Los Angeles, people are home from work, but they can see the blue sky above (at least when fires aren’t burning.) In Venice, the canals are not brimming with tourist-filled gondolas, but the water is running cleaner, if not clean. People are taking time to be in nature because it is the best way to get out of the house and comply with social distancing requirements. And they are reaping health benefits because pollution levels across the country are plummeting as a result of humans staying home.
Indeed, the most surprising headline recently is that the reduction in our activity may have saved tens of thousands of lives around the globe — in addition to those that are saved by social distancing to avoid getting the virus. A Stanford University researcher conservatively estimates that the reduction in air pollution for two months in China saved more than 50,000 people who would have otherwise died prematurely.
However, it’s not all rosy. The pandemic has brought with it a wealth of environmental consequences that could have a major impact on all of us long after things return to ‘normal.’
We’re living through the biggest carbon crash ever recorded.
No war, no recession, no previous pandemic has had such a dramatic impact on emissions of CO2 over the past century as Covid-19 has in a few short months.
Multiple sources indicate we are now living through an unrivalled drop in carbon output. But even though we will see a massive fall this year, the concentrations of CO2 that are in the atmosphere and warming our planet won’t stabilize until the world reaches net-zero.
Over the past 100 years, a number of events have shown that dramatic falls in carbon are possible. Much is made of the financial crash in 2008-2009, but in reality, carbon emissions only fell by around 450 million tons between 2008 and 2009. This is much smaller than the fall in CO2 in the aftermath of World War II, which saw a drop of around 800 million tons.
But the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 dwarves all of these previous shocks by some distance. In a few months, demand for energy globally has fallen off a cliff. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that the world will use 6% less this year – equivalent to losing the entire energy demand of India. This will feed through to large falls in CO2.
A number of different analyses, including this one from Carbon Brief, show that emissions this year will fall by 4-8%, somewhere between 2 and 3 billion tonnes of the warming gas. That’s between six and ten times larger than during the last global recession.
Airline emissions have taken a total nosedive.
As the virus spread around the globe, airlines were forced to cut operations. Despite previous projections of growth, 67 million fewer passengers flew in the first three months of 2020 compared to the year before.
Policymakers and industry are still trying to figure out how much worse it will get, but airlines are canceling an increasing number of flights as the virus continues to spread and countries introduce travel restrictions.
Airline lobby IATA predicts the global industry could lose up to $113 billion this year. This inevitably means a dip in carbon emissions, but that will only last as long as the virus does.
However, some experts believe that COVID-19 will end up harming the environment.
Many of us are grasping to the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic has been “good for the environment” – that nature is in recovery mode while humanity stays at home. So many of us want to find an upside to the global tragedy. Reality, though, may not let those hopes live on.
“We still have the same cars, the same roads, the same industries, same houses,” says Corinne Le Quéré, professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia in Britain and lead author of the original study and subsequent update. “So as soon as the restrictions are released, we go right back to where we were.”
And as countries rush back to reopen their economies, many fear that they’ll forgo environmental regulations in favor of economic stimulation.
China offers a glimpse into the future. As the first country to shut down and one of the first to start reopening, the country has largely seen a reversal in the major improvements in air quality that happened in February and March. Meanwhile, some of the world’s dirtiest industries (oil and coal) have received huge exemptions from many new rules and have received billions in financial aid.
Especially since we’re creating mountains of waste.
Even our coffee habits are having a major effect on the environment because of the pandemic. To avoid possible pleading of the virus, Starbucks decided to stop accepting reusable cups from its customers — only serving drinks in disposable single-use cups that are not yet recyclable.
There have also been warnings to err toward eating pre-packaged foods, for example at work functions — despite an effort by officials to reassure people that, so far, there is “no evidence that food is a likely source or route of transmission of the virus.”
Meanwhile, China is drowning under medical waste produced by hospitals including face masks and single-use tissues. In the city of Wuhan, the volume of medical waste is reported to have quadrupled to more than 200 tons a day. Single-use medical items that have been in contact with infected patients must be burned to prevent further contamination that could occur during recycling.
Even though the pandemic continues, we must not lose sight of the potential for a brighter future. But to achieve that goal, we must invest in our own personal sustainability. If this moment is teaching us anything, it is that we are all accountable to each other — as well as the value of cooperation at every level of society. We cannot solve the climate crisis and clean up the pollution that ails us without that same sense of shared responsibility and action.
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