The stock market in freefall, countries in lockdown and the airline industry seems to be on the brink of collapse - nothing seems to be going right for anyone. However, although it might appear that everyone is harmed by the effects of the Coronavirus, there is one key winner throughout all this panic: the environment.
As cities and countries around the world enact stringent measures to contain the spread of the Coronavirus, there have been various cases showing that there have been some unintended, positive, climate benefits. In Venice, there have been widely circulated images of the water that passes through its canals that, following a large reduction in tourists that use boats to pass through the riverways, have increased in quality. The water has changed from its normal murky appearance to be clearer and fresher. In China, NASA recorded major decreases in nitrogen dioxide emissions - which is emitted from vehicles, power plants and industrial facilities - in major Chinese cities between January and February. Moreover, between February 3rd and March 1st, CO2 emissions dropped 25% in China, a remarkable fact for a country that contributes 30% of global CO2 emissions annually.
On the other side of the world, researchers in New York City reported that carbon monoxide levels - primarily from cars - have been reduced by up to 50% compared to last year. The researchers also found that there has been a 5-10% drop in CO2 over the city as well as a drop in methane levels. The extensive impacts caused by society coming to a virtual halt has led to Professor Commane from Columbia University to believe that this year we will see the smallest rise in May to May peak CO2 levels in the Northern Hemisphere since 2009. However, it does not seem to be all good news. Many fear that, once the measures designed to contain the virus are lifted, and human activity resumes as normal, there will be “revenge pollution”. This type of pollution is defined as that created from a resumption of industrial activity that could actually lead to higher levels than before, to make up for the lag in production, essentially nullifying any past decreases. Such revenge pollution is heavily expected to arise in China, who will seek to get back on track to continuous economic growth that will have been hampered by the Coronavirus and the previous trade war with the United States.
For many, this news may come as no surprise. For the steadfast, green activists who partake in the protests of Extinction Rebellion and other groups, the notion that a halt in human activity benefits the planet is common sense. In fact, most of these environmental activists are probably rejoicing at what they see as a temporary halt to the constant suffering humanity subjects the Earth to. Nonetheless, we should appreciate the key lessons we are learning here. If we are seeing such immediate and visible change, like with the river canals in Venice, then one could easily imagine the positive benefits if we only slightly reduced our collective carbon footprint. This allows us to reconsider the environmental movement and green politics in general, who have been trying to highlight this fact for a long time. Groups like Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion have for years called for society to drastically re-organise itself economically, socially and politically to avoid an environmental catastrophe. If we fail to do this, we face a future with heat-waves, rising sea levels and mass extinction of biodiversity. The Coronavirus has provided us with a unique opportunity to see what exactly is required on our part to achieve what the environmental movement wants. We would have to slowly cease all human activity, including commuting to work and travelling abroad, until these became virtually extinct, if we truly want to reverse the damage humans have done to the planet. However, how feasible is it really? Very few people would be willing to adopt such drastic changes to their lives knowing they would most likely lose their jobs and jeopardise their family’s future. In fact, we have seen that, even under extreme circumstances like the ones we currently find ourselves in, people still disobey the government’s advice to have some sense of normality in their life. Moreover, other factors, like the viability of stock markets, changing international relations and declining industrial productivity would also present challenges to the radical changes advocated in the name of environmentalism.
Ultimately, the Coronavirus and the unexpected environmental benefits have demonstrated to the world the potential rehabilitation the planet could receive if humanity stopped its business-as-usual approach. When things return to normal, a re-ignition of the environmentalism debate is most likely to arise, specifically pertaining to how far we should aim to replicate these environmental effects. Even so, globally, this argument will be set against the real economic and technological cost it would require from society as a whole. No matter what happens, we can be sure that the environmentalism debate will no longer be the same after this Coronavirus outbreak.
Image: Erik Mclean on Unsplash