Environmental effects of COVID-19 provide hope for future
June 11, 2020
The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on our global economy and left almost 400,000 dead.
It has upturned the lives of billions of people across the world, but there is a chance that we can make the world better if we learn lessons from this recent and tragic turn of events.
The novelist Ernest Hemingway once said, “The Earth is a fine place and worth fighting for;” however, many would argue that humanity has not always treated the Earth like it is a “fine place.”
We inflict harm to our environment on a daily basis, ranging from cutting down whole forests to littering thousands of pounds of plastic into our oceans annually to burning fossil fuels that cause air pollution. And up until governments across the planet were forced to impose lockdowns to slow the spread of the coronavirus, it seemed like these behaviors would continue unabated. However, the pandemic has brought us both a step closer to finding sustainable ways to thrive while treating our environment in a responsible manner.
Many employers have made the transition to letting their employees work from home, reducing commute times, and leading to significant drops in global carbon emissions. On April 7, daily carbon dioxide emissions temporarily dropped to levels last seen since 2006, according to Nature Climate Change. If lockdown restrictions continue at this rate, it is possible that global emissions could fall by up to 7 percent this year. Research finds that the world emitted 100 million tonnes of CO2 per day in 2019, whereas, in early April 2020, this number fell to 83 million tonnes.
Because of COVID-19, India has seen one of the most drastic changes with regard to air quality. Authorities said that it had reached “unbearable levels” less than six months ago, asking residents to wear masks, avoid polluted areas, and keep windows closed. Approximately more than one million Indians die every year because of air pollution-related diseases. India was suffocating, but for the first time in years, millions are inhaling fresh air and seeing blue skies.
As a result of the improved air quality, the Himalayan Mountains can be seen from more than 100 miles away for the first time in 30 years. In awe of the unbelievable, breathtaking view, many residents in parts of northern Punjab have been tweeting pictures of the presently enthralling landscape.
The Himalayan Mountains hold the record of the world’s highest elevations of up to 24,000 feet, including Mount Everest’s peak, which is the tallest in the world. India’s lockdown began on March 25 and residents were able to see distinctive results within their environment as soon as early April. Although activity has slowed considerably in Punjab today, it just goes to show that there’s a silver lining in every situation.
Italy, one of the earlier COVID-19 epicenters, has seen prominent improvements in water quality. Due to the pandemic, many are shying away from the country as the tourist industry declines, resulting in crystal clear waterways. Jellyfish, octopuses, ducks, and other marine life have been easily spotted in the once cloudy, almost opaque canals. Venetians that were born and raised there claim to have never seen such wildlife in their city.
Normally packed with water taxis and cruise ships, the waterways are quiet, allowing the sediment to descend. This is what’s causing the water to lighten and change color, which is a striking yet beautiful sight to see for many residents.
Helpful, Positive Behaviors Around the House
With the implementation of many stay-at-home orders across the world, many have turned to gardening to fill all of the new time on their hands. The sales of seeds and gardening tools have skyrocketed across America as this green hobby becomes ubiquitous. For some, this isn’t merely just a newfound hobby, but rather a way to have reliable access to fresh produce as shelves across the country emptied out because of panic buying.
Many Americans are buying farm animals like chickens to secure a dependable supply of eggs as prices and demand soar through the roof. Gardening is not only an environmentally sustainable thing to do during quarantine, but it provides mental health benefits as well.
Dr. Gregory Nawalanic, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, says that the outdoor nature of gardening is ‘powerful’ for mental health. As soon as you are exposed to the sunlight, the body starts producing vitamin D, resulting in an increase of serotonin levels in the brain. This hormone is known to lift the mood as well as reduce symptoms of depression, which can easily be developed during the pandemic.
The pandemic has also created an increased interest in renewable energy. Travel has severely slowed down, which has led to a sudden drop in oil demand and prices. According to a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydropower have put coal-fired power in the shade in the United States for 40 consecutive days. This astonishing turning point can pave the way for the transition to clean energy. Because of their affordability and efficiency, renewable energy sources are expected to grow 11 percent, predicts the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Plastic Plays a Consequential Role
Unfortunately, the pandemic has exacerbated the amount of plastic waste. Before the pandemic, many stores around the world were finally making the transition from plastic to reusable bags and were developing restrictions against single-use plastics. Currently, the speculation that reusable bags could spread this infectious respiratory disease has instilled fear into customers, causing them to revert back to using plastic bags.
There has been no evidence that reusable bags play any role in spreading the disease, yet some states like New Hampshire have gone as far as temporarily banning reusable bags for the duration of the pandemic.
Plastic bags that are thrown away either end up in landfills, waterways, or oceans and may take up to a millennium to degrade, only to end up contaminating our soil and water. According to estimates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a plastic water bottle could stick around for up to 450 years and less than 10 percent of plastics have actually been recycled.
Beyond the increased use of plastic bags, the necessity to wear personal protective equipment like masks and gloves has also contributed to increased creation of plastic waste. This equipment is not being properly disposed of and is being littered in parking lots of grocery stores or on the streets. Discarded plastic often ends up in oceans, where it is gravely harmful to marine wildlife because what looks like food to a sea turtle is actually a piece of plastic.
Long after we have a vaccine for COVID-19, the negative impacts of plastic waste could develop into another disaster for our planet.
Solar Minimum Could Help Lower Temperatures
Another helpful event that could help our planet has nothing to do with human activity is related to changes in our galaxy. The Sun is about to enter a grand solar minimum, which can help to reduce the impact of climate change.
A solar minimum occurs when the Sun’s magnetic field inverts and the Sun’s north and south poles switch places. This solar event can last anywhere from decades to centuries, but a solar cycle only takes 11 years to complete, which is how long it will take for the poles to switch back. In the course of the minimum, sunspots, solar flares, and temperature mitigate.
The earth’s current global temperature is at 14.78 degrees Celsius, or 58.62 degrees Fahrenheit, but several studies in recent years indicate that a solar minimum could at best cool the planet down by 0.3 degrees Celsius, or 32.54 degrees Fahrenheit. According to NASA, this could minimally decelerate man-made climate change.
Even experts are recognizing these environmental observations and are able to see the beacon of hope at the end of this if we preserve the positive lifestyle changes that we’ve had to adapt to because of coronavirus.
Julie Oliver, the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency’s executive director, says that our potent and swift response to the pandemic could “serve as a model for the fight against climate change.”
In response to vehicle emissions dropping nitrogen oxide emissions by a third in the northeastern United States, the director of the Sustainable Communities Program at Birmingham University, George Homsy, said that “the positive changes aren’t just something to marvel at, but an opportunity to make permanent changes.”
Thinking ahead, Homsy introduces the idea of working one day a week from home to create a 20 percent drop in travel.
He also expresses optimism in regard to our ability to further these impacts and observations.
“By learning from some of the changes we have made in response to COVID-19, we can not only preserve some of the positive impacts we’ve seen on the environment but build on them,” he said.
Homsy added that “If we can come together to fight COVID-19, we can come together to fight climate change the same way.”