by Foteini Mentzou,
COVID-19 pandemic is creating chaos in countries around the world, causing a global health crisis while forcing economies to shut down in the light of strict quarantine measures. But the outbreak is also having an intriguing impact on the Earth’s environment, as states restrict the movement of people. All those people staying at home seem to be a collective weight off the shoulders of the global environment in certain observable ways. As a result, it appears that COVID-19 pandemic constitutes a gift for Earth.
With half of the world’s population on lockdown, wild animals are roaming freely the sea, in cities and regions usually bustling with people. Leatherback sea turtles are among the many species enjoying the extra space ceded by humans. Beaches in Thailand with a dearth of human tourists have recently seen 11 turtle nests, which is the highest number that has been identified during the last 20 years (The Guardian, 2020). Elsewhere, the Himalayas are visible from parts of India for the first time in decades, other animals like kangaroos and goats have more freedom to roam, and life everywhere just seems to be breathing easier (Cnet, 2020).
In spite of the above mentioned, the main area that scientists are witnessing a big difference in is air quality. Data from the Sentinel-5P satellite shows that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) air pollution levels, emitted in most cases by burning fossil fuels at high temperatures, as in internal combustion engines, have plummeted in many areas across the world since the pandemic. It seems that the huge reductions in air pollution are even more noticeable in regions that have been significantly affected by COVID-19 (Euronews, 2020).
Both China’s and Italy’s industrial areas are showing strong drops in nitrogen dioxide as a result of the reductions in industrial activity and vehicular traffic. In China, emissions fell 25% at the start of the year as people were instructed to stay at home, factories shuttered and coal use fell by 40% at China’s six largest power plants since the last quarter of 2019. After a 76-day lockdown, the proportion of days with “good quality air” was up by 11.4% compared with the same time last year in 337 cities across China, according to its Ministry of Ecology and Environment (Bussiness Insider, 2020). As for Italy, most of its towns especially in the north, are heavily polluted, so the national lockdown measures on March 12 had an instant impact on “brightening” the air. This fact is even more noticeable via the following video, which depicts some worth mentioning information. (BBC Future, 2020)
In Milan, the concentration of nitrogen dioxide has fallen by 24 percent during the month of March, compared with February, EEA said. More precisely, the week starting on March 16 alone saw a 21 percent reduction compared with the same week one year earlier. In Rome, NO2 levels have fallen between 26 and 35 percent for the same four weeks, and in Bergamo, Italy’s hardest-hit city, the reduction was 47 percent. (The LOCAL it, 2020)
Other parts of Europe have seen similar effects. For instance, Paris, saw nitrogen dioxide levels drop by 54%, according to research that was released by the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, while in Spain, NO2 concentration has fallen by 55 percent in Barcelona and 41 percent in Madrid, on a 12-month comparison. (Euronews, 2020)
However, a global pandemic that is claiming people’s lives certainly shouldn’t be seen as a way of bringing about environmental change. The COVID-19 is already transforming the lives of millions of people across the globe, and right now minds are mainly focused on tackling the growing public health crisis.
But what could the potential long-term implications be when it comes to the environment?
This is not the first time that environment is flourishing due to anthropogenic malfunctions. Epidemics such as the Black Death in Europe in the 14th Century and the one that Spanish conquistadors brought to South America in the 16th Century, both left subtle marks on atmospheric CO2 levels, as Pongratz found by measuring tiny bubbles trapped in ancient ice cores. Nevertheless, the impact from today’s outbreak is not predicted to lead to anywhere near the same number of deaths that the previous pandemics had caused. As for some more recent world events, the financial crash of 2008 and 2009 led to an overall drop in emissions of 1.3%, but the most frustrating part is that it quickly rebounded by 2010 as the economy recovered, leading to an all-time high.
Given all the above mentioned historical facts, we deduce that climate change will still be around and will not really be changed by this crisis. Long term results will prove beneficial for the environment only if each and every one of us face this global lockdown as an opportunity to turn into habits some restrictions that we were forced to obey. What is for sure, is that the speed and extent of the response, has given some hope that rapid action could also be taken on climate change if the threat it poses was treated as urgent. “It… shows that at the national, or international level, if we need to take action we can,” Donna Green, associate professor at University of New South Wales’s Climate Change Research Centre in New Zealand, told CNN. “So why haven’t we for the climate? And not with words, with real actions.” (BBC Future, 2020)
The Guardian, (2020), “Coronavirus lockdown boosts numbers of Thailand’s rare sea turtles”. Available here. [Accessed 1 May 2020]
Cnet, ( 2020), “On Earth Day 2020, coronavirus shutdowns are a gift to the environment”, Available here. [Accessed 1 May 2020]
Euronews (2020) “Coronavirus and climate: how much impact is the current lockdown really having on our environment?”, Available here. [Accessed 1 May 2020]
BUSINESS INSIDER (2020) “China is relaxing its coronavirus lockdowns, but the rules are still more restrictive than US cities under quarantine”, Available here. [Accessed 1 May 2020]
BBC FUTURE, (2020), “Pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have fallen across continents as countries try to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. Is this just a fleeting change, or could it lead to longer-lasting falls in emissions?” Available here. [Accessed 1 May 2020]
THE LOCAL it (26 March 2020), “Here’s how much pollution has fallen in Italy since quarantine began” Available here. [Accessed 1 May 2020]
Euronews (2020), “Air pollution plummets by more than 45% in major European cities”, Available here. [Accessed 1 May 2020]