The Environmental Impact of COVID-19

Welcome to the Future Hindsight blog, lockdown edition!

First and foremost, we hope this post finds you, your family, loved ones, and friends in good health and good spirits.

Secondly, we hope this post finds you INSIDE. Seriously, unless you work at a healthcare facility, pharmacy, or grocery store, please just hunker down.

Since no one can talk about anything other than the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the drastic measures nations around the globe are taking to stop it, we figured we’d hop on the bandwagon. Before everything went shockingly sideways in the matter of a few weeks, you may remember we were in the midst of a season looking at the causes, effects, and solutions to the most significant long-term threat to humanity: climate change.

Just a couple of days ago, our host Mila sat down with professor and author Leah Stokes to uncover why the policies put in place by the US since 2000 have failed so spectacularly at slowing the global emissions crisis. If you haven’t heard it yet, check it out here!

We’re going to be returning to regularly scheduled blog content. Still, we couldn’t miss taking an opportunity to investigate the global environmental repercussions of COVID-19 and the massive push to get people to stay inside.

While humans are looking at a grim couple of months as the virus works its way through the population, the Earth is looking at some sweet, sweet relief. We humans are extraordinarily bad for the Earth. This isn’t an angry criticism, it’s just an unpleasant fact. Many of the guests we’ve on this season are working to make us less harmful, but we, as a species, are a net negative for the planet.

So, what happens when we all stay at home?

Turns out, A LOT.

First, let’s start in China, the origin of the pandemic. Since December of 2019, emissions plunged over the nation of nearly 1.4 billion. According to Axios, emissions from China’s six largest coal plants fell 40% from the last quarter of 2019. Overall, fine particulate matter—a pollutant byproduct of China’s massive complex of factories—has fallen 20-30% in the same period.

Check out this amazing video taken from the European Space Agency’s Copernicus satellite measuring pollution over China from December to March:

Don’t get too hopeful, however. China has thankfully weathered the worst of their COVID storm, and at the time of writing, they were celebrating their first day with no new cases of the virus.

A drop in COVID cases is great news for everyone, but maybe not the planet. Already, emissions there are beginning to rise.

Similar stories are playing out in other parts of the world—most notably Italy. Because of their aging population and early cases, northern Italy became the European epicenter for the virus. Now, the country of 62 million has reported more COVID-related deaths than China. Italy has experienced a similar fall in emissions due to reduced car traffic and industrial operations. In Venice, notoriously murky canals have cleared, although it wouldn’t be 2020 without some fake news about dolphins showing up in them too, right?

Closer to home, in New York City, emissions are down significantly, and experts expect it’s going to be months before a return to normalcy. Already, reports indicate a decrease of 50% in pollution due to vehicle exhaust year-over-year, and New York has months until cars are back on the road in the same way they were last year.

Despite the global emissions plunge, climate experts aren’t very excited. Since this is a short-term measure, emissions are likely to rise again once we’re let out of our houses. The biggest hope is in human solidarity. Perhaps if we can band together to overcome an existential viral threat, we can use those same tactics to overcome what is increasingly seen as the literal end of the world: climate change.

“The plus side is, if there’s a sense of social cooperation that emerges from this in response to a threat, that could be a very good sign for communities and leaders to come together,” said Michael Lazarus, U.S. director at the Stockholm Environment Institute, in an article for Inside Climate News.

Will COVID-19 be the catalyst we need as a global society to start enacting dramatic measures to stem the flow of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere? Only time will tell.

Until then, stay indoors.

WORKS CITED

Al Jazeera. “UK Schools to Close, Italy’s COVID-19 Deaths Jump: Live Updates.” News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 19 Mar. 2020, www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/uk-schools-close-italy-covid-19-deaths-jump-live-updates-200318235116951.html.

Baggaley, Kate. “How Long Will COVID-19 Last?” Popular Science, Popular Science, 17 Mar. 2020, www.popsci.com/story/health/covid-19-coronavirus-duration-time/.

BALL, Sam. “Clearer Water, Cleaner Air: The Environmental Effects of Coronavirus.” France 24, France 24, 20 Mar. 2020, www.france24.com/en/20200320-clearer-water-cleaner-air-the-environmental-effects-of-coronavirus.

Boynton, Sean. “Air Pollution Plummeted in China Due to Coronavirus. It’s Starting to Go up Again.” Global News, Global News, 20 Mar. 2020, globalnews.ca/news/6704818/air-pollution-declined-china-coronavirus/.

“Coronavirus Live Updates: Italy’s Death Toll Surpasses China’s as State Dept. Warns Against Travel Abroad.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Mar. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/03/19/world/coronavirus-update-cases.html.

“Emissions Drops Seen as NYC, Global Traffic Levels Dive amid COVID-19 Fears.” UPI, UPI, 19 Mar. 2020, www.upi.com/Science_News/2020/03/19/Emissions-drops-seen-as-NYC-global-traffic-levels-dive-amid-COVID-19-fears/5371584630146/.

Gearino, Dan, et al. “Coronavirus ‘Really Not the Way You Want To Decrease Emissions’.” InsideClimate News, 12 Mar. 2020, insideclimatenews.org/news/10032020/coronavirus-climate-change-economy-emissions.

Geman, Ben. “The Environmental Impact of China’s Coronavirus Shutdown.” Axios, 18 Mar. 2020, www.axios.com/coronavirus-china-carbon-emissions-3453d9a1-1ae9-4789-8a41-3ed257946dbd.html.

National Geographic Society. “Human Impacts on the Environment.” National Geographic Society, www.nationalgeographic.org/topics/resource-library-human-impacts-environment/?q=&page=1&per_page=25.

Simon, Matt. “Why the Coronavirus Hit Italy So Hard.” Wired, Conde Nast, 17 Mar. 2020, www.wired.com/story/why-the-coronavirus-hit-italy-so-hard/.

Srikanth, Anagha. “As Italy Quarantines over Coronavirus, Swans Appear in Venice Canals, Dolphins Swim up Playfully.” TheHill, 19 Mar. 2020, thehill.com/changing-america/sustainability/environment/488286-italys-coronavirus-lockdown-shows-what-nature.

Westcott, Ben. “The Coronavirus Pandemic Began in China. Today, It Reported No New Local Infections for the First Time.” CNN, Cable News Network, 19 Mar. 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/03/19/asia/coronavirus-covid-19-update-china-intl-hnk/index.html.

“The World Factbook: China.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 1 Feb. 2018, www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ch.html.

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