It’s been a rough couple weeks, to say the least. Between market crashes, economic uncertainty, and ever-increasing virus numbers on this side of the world, the news has been kind of… well, gloomy.
And that’s understandable. People are scared for both their health and their livelihoods. But it’s also the reason that now, more than ever, we really need some positivity.
If there is a bright side to this pandemic, it’s that it’s forced us to slow down. To spend more time with loved ones, to learn how to adapt to challenging and changing circumstances, and to observe how powerful collective action really is. And that forced slow down has made Mother Nature a little happier!
How coronavirus is affecting the environment
Significant air quality improvements around the world
With cities on lockdown, it’s perhaps no surprise that there’s been a reduction in air pollution. NASA first noticed the air quality improvements in the Chinese province of Hubei, where one air quality researcher noted that he’s never seen “such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event.” According to an estimate from a Stanford University researcher, this may have saved the lives of 4,000 children under the age of 5 and 73,000 adults over 70.
In Europe, NO2 rates are falling significantly, too. Rome has seen a reduction of up to 35%, while air pollution in Barcelona, Lisbon, and Madrid is down by 55%, 51%, and 44%, respectively, compared to the same time last year.
It’s a trend that’s likely to be echoed here in North America, as non-essential businesses close and people are asked to stay home as much as possible. Already, researchers in New York are reporting a 50% decrease in carbon monoxide, mainly as a result of fewer cars on the road.
Clear water in Venice
Visit Venice, Italy on a typical day and you’ll be hard pressed to find clear water running through the infamous canals. But in the midst of a complete lockdown in Italy, the canals appear pristine. The city sees anywhere from 26 to 30 million visitors each year, many of whom arrive via large cruise ships that pass through and dock in the Venice lagoon. These ships are notorious for their devastating impact on the environment. Their (often) diesel engines produce nitrogen oxide emissions and have a high sulfur content, which discharges sulfuric acid into the water and destroys aquatic life. They’re also known for dumping waste into the oceans, often in the form of untreated greywater. While a few weeks without cruise ships won’t necessarily change the quality of the water, the absence of boat traffic means the sediment is staying on the ground, leaving the canals clearer than they’ve been in decades.
Wildlife consumption ban across China
For years, conservationists have been warning that the wildlife trade poses a substantial risk to the environment and the survival of many at-risk species. But the emergence of this novel coronavirus should teach us a major lesson: this is no longer just about conservation—it’s about public health and biosafety, too. The news of a ban on wildlife consumption across China is certainly welcome, and a shutdown of wildlife markets in the country is long overdue. The challenge, now, will be in addressing the illegal wildlife trade. China is the largest market in the world for illegal wildlife products, and cutting off that flow will no doubt make a significant impact on global conservation efforts.
Wildlife reclaiming its place
Human activity often drives wildlife away—and in Italy, in particular, residents under lockdown have noticed a return of wildlife in certain areas. Videos posted online show ducks bathing in fountains of Rome. Dolphins were seen swimming playfully around Sardinia’s port of Cagliari, one of the largest and (usually) busiest sea ports in the Mediterranean. And wild boars are venturing into empty town streets to explore.
So, will these changes last?
It’s the million-dollar question, really—and it’s entirely up to us. Once these measures end, we can easily return to the status quo. But do we want to? We need to take this time to consider what we really value. We must consider how we can use the lessons learned from this pandemic to develop proactive measures to prevent other catastrophes that could have devastating effects on humanity, including climate change.
How do we want to move forward? What do we want our world to look like? Those are the key questions that we need to tackle once this pandemic comes to an end.