By Kathryn Cloonan, Staff Writer, April 2020
Mother Nature inhales a deep breath of clean air and listens to the relaxing sound of silence. “It’s about time,” she thinks to herself as she watches the humans hide in their houses from the dangerous coronavirus. The environment can finally experience a well-deserved break from detrimental human activity –– a silver lining to the pandemic.
Due to the government-mandated shelter-in-place most of us are under, some changes have occurred in our natural environment. For starters, air quality is much better because many factories have been shut down and oil products are not being burned as often. Quantities of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have steadily declined since the outbreak of COVID-19. Delhi, India experienced one such example of gas concentration reduction, specifically in nitrogen dioxide (which creates smog and causes respiratory issues); the amount of gas in its atmosphere dropped by 70% this year.
Limited pollution is becoming a global phenomenon. In New York, it was reported that coronavirus prevention methods have reduced the levels of pollution by 50%. Additionally, China's Ministry of Ecology and Environment reported an 11.4% improvement in air quality in 337 Chinese cities. Chinese greenhouse gas emissions lowered by 25% at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak and then even more when China’s six largest power plants reduced their coal usage by 40%.
With the decreased pollution comes cleaner air, which is beneficial to both environmental and human health. Studies have shown that air pollution makes diseases like COVID-19 more dangerous. Particles from air pollution weaken the immune system and can lead to inflammation in the lungs, worsening the respiratory issues that COVID-19 causes. Thankfully, scientists believe that fewer greenhouse gas emissions across the world may assist the process of ‘flattening the curve’ and bettering global human health.
The self-isolation is also benefiting global ecosystems— even though it is not sending dolphins into Venetian canals, despite what some fake news circulating the internet suggests. What is happening in Venice is that the waters are cleaner due to decreased boat activity.
Unfortunately, the reduced travel has led to some less beneficial outcomes as well. For example, the United Nations delayed discussing a global biodiversity treaty. The treaty would have guaranteed protection over 30% of the ocean from human activities that have led to a loss in biodiversity, such as overfishing and plastic pollution.
Similarly, projects to repair bleach damage in the Great Barrier Reef have been limited. Bleaching is caused by the increase in the temperature of waters around the reef due to climate change. Coral affected by bleaching loses color and health, which eventually prevents growth and reproduction. Even though the reduced greenhouse gas emissions could eventually aid this problem, scientists’ restricted abilities to assess the damage to the reef prevents further action against the bleaching crisis.
Still, the cleaner air, skies, and water are helping the majority of the global natural environment for now. The pandemic’s end may lead to a new spike in travel because people can reschedule trips cancelled because of the outbreak. Moreover, people could begin driving to work again. Environmentalists are hoping, however, that the benefits of reduced emissions will be realized and clean energy resources will become more popular.
Some scientists are hoping to capitalize on the limited time human beings have left before the worst consequences of climate change are revealed. This coronavirus time period is being used as a “natural experiment,” meaning scientists are able to take measurements to see what the effect of reduced emissions might be. From what has been deduced so far, the problem is that fossil fuel use would still need to decline by 10% and these positive changes would have to be maintained for a year in order for any serious change to occur. Overall this year, the world might see a .3% reduction in emissions.
So what can we do to help the environment further? For starters, we can continue to limit detrimental transportation and turn to clean energy sources like solar panels. Electric cars and bicycles can act as clean transportation methods that prevent further greenhouse gas emissions. Reduction in over-manufacturing and keeping a careful watch on emission rates are similarly important. If countries focus on improving their economies and disregard the new spike in emissions, no change will come.
Environmental Action Committee (EAC) Faculty Advisor Deb Harrison emphasized the importance of paying attention to climate change now. “We have shown what happens during a crisis when everyone acts to respond. The COVID-19 crisis is a matter of life and death as we stay at home and do our collective best to flatten the curve,” Harrison said. She added, “Climate change is also a matter of life and death global crisis. It deserves a response that derails the trajectory we are on with record-setting climate change events and high global temperatures as the norm.”