COVID-19 continues to be good for the planet — for now
| April 07, 2020
With the coronavirus raging, there's little that's not connected to the topic. The environment continues to be a bright spot among the bad news. It's a topic we've covered here before, but social distancing and the near-shutdown of the world’s economy are having overwhelmingly positive impacts on the health of the planet.
Nearly every headline related to the environment is presently positive. Levels of air pollution worldwide are down, and dangerous gases above many cities of the planet see drops because of fewer people working and traveling. Researchers in New York report that early results suggest carbon monoxide from cars has been reduced by almost 50% compared to the same time last year.
The drop in pollution is no surprise, as manufacturing and most pollution-producing industries have ground to a halt due to the spread of the virus.
Back in New York, traffic levels in the city were reported down 35% compared with a year ago. Emissions of carbon monoxide have fallen nearly 50%, researchers at Columbia University said. Elsewhere, there was an estimated 25% drop in energy use and emissions in China over two weeks earlier this year. Overall, researchers said they expect a decline of about 1% in China's carbon emissions this year.
Also, in China, as well as portions of Italy, there is far less nitrogen dioxide detected.
Experts as yet don't know how much of an impact the shuttered economy will have on the total levels of people-produced pollutants, but many said they expect the shutdown to impact CO2 levels for the rest of the year. The ultimate test is determined by the length of the pandemic and how long it lasts and how pervasive it is across the planet.
"The air is much healthier," said professor James Lee at York University, who analyzed the data.
Paul Monks, professor of air pollution at the University of Leicester, called it the "largest-scale experiment ever" regarding the reduction of industrial emissions.
Some experts believe that pollution reduction could save the lives of as many as 75,000 people.
In India, the results have been stark. With a population of 1.3 billion people, the country has ground to a near halt as elsewhere. It is, so far, the world's most extensive lockdown of all factories, markets, shops, and places of worship; most public transport has been suspended; and construction work halted.
The drop in pollutants there has led to blue skies in what is one of the most polluted places on the planet — a country that has 21 of the world's 30 most polluted cities, according to the IQAir AirVisual's 2019 World Air Quality Report.
In the capital, New Delhi, data shows the average concentration of PM 2.5 (microscopic particulate matter) plunged by more than 70%, dropping from 91 micrograms per cubic meter on March 20 to 26 on March 27. The World Health Organization considers anything above 25 to be unsafe.
Nitrogen dioxide went from 52 per cubic meter to 15 in the same period, a 71% fall. Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, and Bangalore have also recorded a fall in these air pollutants.
Despite the positive impacts of the pandemic, the gains may be short-lived, said Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. These positive impacts “are but temporary because they come on the back of tragic economic slowdown and human distress.”
Andersen says that the pandemic will increase the amounts of medical and hazardous waste generated. Any positive environmental impact in the wake of the disease must be in changing production and consumption habits toward cleaner and greener practices. “Only long-term systemic shifts will change the trajectory of CO2 levels in the atmosphere,” Andersen said.
Her takeaway is: While most countries are on their way to overcoming coronavirus, that makes no matter because there's a genuine chance that such an incident may happen again if the health of the planet is not improved long term.
Even though the benefits of short term, lovers of the planet will take what they can get.
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