By Jason Pareja Jauregui
The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc in countries across the globe, causing a global health crisis and forcing economies to slow down due to the strict quarantine measures. However, the outbreak has also impacted the environment in an intriguing way. As the pandemic spreads in different parts of the world, its consequences run farther than closed borders, scarce hand sanitizer, and social distancing protocols.
COVID-19 is affecting the lives of millions of people and, also, the environment. The CO2 emissions and human mobility have been reduced, which improves air quality and encourages wild animals to come out and explore the cities. But how sustainable is this positive effect in the long term?
Scientists have confirmed that air quality in certain regions has improved in recent weeks. As industries, aviation, and other means of transportation stop, air pollution is reduced countries severely affected by the virus, such as China, Italy, and Spain. A reduction in commuting due to work from home policies has also played its part in reducing carbon emissions.
According to Steven Davis, Associate Professor in the Department of Earth System Science at the University of California, in recent years, we have generated around 500 tons of CO2 per $1 million of the world’s GDP. In 2019, 40 billion tons of CO2 were emitted per $88 billions of the world’s GDP. If this correlation persists, a decrease of the world’s GDP due to the imminent economic recession might generate a reduction in the global CO2 emissions in a similar proportion.
Furthermore, Randolph Bell, Director of the Global Energy Center, explained in the Atlantic Council that the economic recession linked by the virus is likely to cause a drop in the carbon dioxide emissions for this year. He indicated that NASA’s satellite images have evidenced the pollution reduction in China right after the carbon emissions had dropped by 25% in four weeks of lockdown.
In the long term, the COVID-19 pandemic will offer lessons and opportunities leading to environmental action. For instance, we will have a new baseline of what can be achieved digitally: remote work, education, shopping, and more. In addition, as our governments, private institutions, and even social media succeed in partnering, we will possibly feel more capable of tackling other pressing issues such as climate change. Our response to this health crisis will shape how we will deal with a climate crisis in the next decades. Times of change can lead to the introduction of long-lasting sustainable habits. Thanks to the outbreak, some habits that are incidentally beneficial to the environment may last since people will have experienced scarcity. For example, the reduction of travel, personal consumption, and food waste.
This public health crisis may serve as a turning point for another well-known crisis that, even though it may be perceived as slow, has the potential of significantly impacting humanity. As the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, indicated the threat of COVID-19 is temporary, meanwhile, the threat of droughts, floods, and extreme storms linked to climate change will remain for years and will require constant action.
Clearly, human beings are part of nature and all activity that impacts the environment also impacts us. According to Marshall Burke from the Department of Earth System Science at Stanford University, in China, just two months of reduced pollution has saved the lives of 4000 children under the age of 5 and 73000 adults over the age of 70. Perhaps, this is not a question of whether the virus is “good” or “bad” for the climate, but instead if we can create a functional economic system that supports people without threatening the life of Earth.
It is safe to say that no one wanted carbon emissions to be reduced this way. COVID-19 has a dark cost to our lives, healthcare systems, and mental health of people around the world. Nevertheless, it has also shown that communities can make a difference when they take care of each other, and this could be an invaluable lesson when we face climate change.
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