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COVID-19 and Climate Change: What does the Coronavirus mean for Us and Our Planet?

The Coronavirus has been taking the world by storm. Now officially named COVID-19 by the WHO, this disease from the Coronavirus family first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December of 2019. Although its exact origins remain to be confirmed, it is suspected that the virus emerged in the Wuhan Seafood Wholesale Market where live and freshly slaughtered animals, including wildlife, were being sold.

As of writing this piece, the total number of infections around the world exceeded 240,000 while the total number of deaths exceeded 10,000. On March 11, 2020 – and for obvious reasons – this new disease was declared a global pandemic. The numbers of infected and dead are climbing at an alarming rate, and it is not clear when they will slow down.

However, as many have noted, this new pandemic hasn’t had only negative impacts. In fact, some of the hardest hit countries are those most clearly exhibiting the positive impacts COVID-19 is having on our environment and on existing issues such as pollution and climate change. By exploring and understanding the positive (and negative) impacts, we can have a better picture of what the new coronavirus means for us and our planet.

How is COVID-19 impacting the environment and climate change?

From lower levels of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions to clearer skies and waters as a result, the impacts are undeniable. Starting with China, the first country to have imposed heavy restrictions such as domestic travel bans and lockdowns,  the country’s levels of pollution have decreased significantly within a short time frame. NO2 (a very harmful pollutant) levels were seen to be 37% lower than average, while CO2 emissions were down by more than 25%. Seeing as China is currently the world’s largest CO2 emitter, these numbers are very striking, and can be visualized in the photograph below taken from a NASA satellite.

Figure 1: Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory

These uplifting effects due to the coronavirus can also be seen elsewhere in the world, such as in northern Italy. Italy has the second largest number of confirmed cases worldwide, and as a result the entire country has been on lockdown for more than a week. Many citizens have been ordered to stay at home, and all non-essential activity has effectively stopped. As expected, this has caused emissions to plummet considerably.

With a very large portion of the population practicing social distancing – staying at home rather than going out for work, school, or other purposes – emissions from private and public transportation have fallen. Furthermore, with most non-essential activity stopped, many factories, power plants, and other sources of pollution have either stopped production or cut back significantly. Lastly, the aviation industry, which is a major source of harmful greenhouse gas emissions, has been hit very badly by the global decrease in passengers and the travel restrictions, temporarily lowering their carbon footprint as well. All these causes combined give rise to the positive effects seen in Italy, China, and all around the world as displayed above.

Perhaps the most visually pleasing way in which the coronavirus has positively impacted the environment is best seen through the waters of the canals in Venice, Italy.

Once choked with pollution from cruise ships bringing in hundreds of thousands of tourists a month, the canals have now returned to their awe-inspiring, clear blue nature. This is yet another example depicting how quickly the environment can recover once we stop polluting it.

Consequences for our lives and the economy

Despite the positive aspects we must not forget the devastating effects of the virus on our daily lives and the global economy. Dozens of millions of people around the globe have been ordered to stay at home, with businesses, schools, and universities coming to a halt. Stock markets have been hit very badly, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average seeing its biggest decline in one day since 1987. Similarly, many stock markets and economies worldwide have been showing their inability to cope with a global crisis of this magnitude.

Unfortunately, many of those that will be hit the hardest will be the small businesses rather than the large corporations, airlines, and market leaders. For many, the real catastrophe won’t be in the form of a microscopic virus, but rather the gigantic turmoil that will be left behind as a result of it. So how do we reconcile all the harm that’s being done by this global pandemic with the positive impacts it’s been having on nature?

A way forward

After the spread of the virus begins to slow down, hopefully sooner rather than later, we’ll be tasked with repairing the global economy and returning to life as usual. This could mean bad news for efforts towards fighting climate change, as it could divert money and international resources away from things such as renewable energy projects and green policies. It could weaken the political sway of leaders promising beneficial environmental action as voters become more concerned with issues such as public health and employment, and reasonably so. All told, while the coronavirus may be temporarily good for the environment, only time will tell if this will also prove to be true in the long run. 

We must therefore band together in these times of hardship and rally behind the scientists and medical health professionals who are doing their best to alleviate this crisis, and always remember how a change in our daily habits brought about such clear and almost-immediate positive responses from the Earth’s environment. We shouldn’t go back to the way things were and wait for another global crisis to keep us in check. We need to move forward with a better plan built on good practices that protect us and enhance our livelihoods, but which also preserve the beautiful planet on which we live. Together, we can pave a more sustainable path forward for everyone.

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