Let's Do Something BIG.
A COMMUNITY DEDICATED TO TELLING THE STORIES OF ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCATES WORKING TOWARDS MAKING THIS WORLD A BETTER PLACE.
I think I speak for most of us when I say that keeping up with the daily news this year has been painfully exhausting. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a self-care guide catered to current events that doesn’t instruct you to completely detach yourself from the news cycle from time to time. But amidst all of the stories, facts, and data we consume regarding COVID-19’s devastatingly negative effects on human society as we know it, there are a few tidbits of seemingly good news about the environment.
Intuitively, this makes sense. Countries around the world who have experienced high coronavirus caseloads have fully locked down, resulting in some eerie photos of empty highways, airports, and public spaces, including a Times Square fully devoid of crowds in New York City. Many of the folks who would normally be commuting to work, flying to distant vacation destinations, and gathering in cities for professional conferences or social events are instead remaining at home, so greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants associated with travel and daily life should decrease.
And this is exactly what scientists have observed: a report released by IQAir on Earth Day outlines the results of a study comparing fine particulate matter measured in the air of major global cities before and during the pandemic. Of the ten cities studied, nine of them showed drastic reductions in air pollution as a result of their lockdowns, with Delhi, India; Los Angeles, US; Wuhan, China; and Mumbai, India experiencing the largest decreases compared with their previous four-year averages. In April, someone in Delhi even described the air as "positively alpine!" (Observe current air quality anywhere in the world here.)
Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, one of the main culprits in global temperature rise, has also been on the decline as a result of the pandemic. The International Energy Agency expects that global CO2 emissions will fall by 8% (nearly 2.6 gigatons) in 2020 – the largest drop ever recorded. This emissions reduction is the result of a global decline in demand for energy from coal, oil, and gas. CarbonBrief notes that an 8% emissions drop is approximately equal to the annual emissions reductions needed to meet the Paris Agreement's target of limiting global warming to less than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.
So, what do these reports really mean for the environment and the future of climate action post-pandemic? I’m not trying to squash the optimism anyone – myself included – might be feeling after scanning headlines of the “nature is healing” sort, but there are a few important things to keep in mind. First, although it is tempting to use the recent reports as definitive evidence that humans are the direct cause of environmental degradation (a.k.a. “we are the virus”), this way of thinking can lead to the dangerous and ecofascist belief that part of the human population must die for the earth to survive. In reality, it is our economic framework – the prioritization of profit over planet, the belief that economic growth can and should continue indefinitely despite finite resources, and the view of the natural world as a commodity – that leads to detrimental environmental outcomes from human activity. Human societies can, and have, existed in peaceful coexistence with the environment in the absence of these economic structures and beliefs. It’s possible even at our current stage of technological advancement. For example, Ireland took major steps to divest from fossil fuels in 2018, voting to sell its holdings in coal, oil, gas, and peat in favor of replacement with renewables.
Unless sweeping changes are made to our methods of energy production, expert predictions and historical evidence agree that the rebound from this economic downturn will most likely result in higher carbon and pollutant emissions than were occurring pre-pandemic, as countries and businesses scramble to make up for lost time and profits. After the 2008-2009 economic crisis in the US, economic recovery ushered in an immediate rebound in CO2 emissions, with the highest year-to-year increase on record in 2010. At present, climate experts are saying that overall greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, and the environmental impacts resulting from them, will continue to increase despite this temporary slow-down in anthropogenic carbon input. This is because we’ve been combusting fossil fuels for energy a lot longer than we’ve been living under stay-at-home orders. Andrea Dutton, a climate scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in an interview for this National Geographic article that cumulative emissions are what really matters: “If [the reduction in emissions] is short-lived, it’s not really touching the tip of iceberg.” Evidence from China, compiled by CarbonBrief, shows that coal consumption at power plants, oil refinery utilization, and nitrogen dioxide pollution levels all returned to a normal range by the end of March.
This all makes sense considering that the improvements we are currently seeing do not result from the implementation of a set of policies designed to leave a healthier planet for future generations. Instead, they are the outcome of a temporary societal change initiated to prevent the spread of an infectious disease and protect the health of those who are living on the planet now, with short-term environmental improvements as a side effect. Any strategy implemented to address climate change will need to involve permanent societal changes that are economically sustainable as well.
Taking the news of recent reductions in air pollution and carbon emissions with a grain of salt feels like a bummer. But knowing that we can globally mobilize against a common threat is something that’s been allowing me to maintain a sense of optimism. For years we have watched political leaders fail to meet collaborative climate goals, but in response to an immediate threat, we have seen countries learning from one another’s experiences, with many leaders prioritizing public health over economic growth. We have also seen renewable energy sources gain traction over fossil fuels, momentum that could be carried through economic recovery if made a priority. If we – collectively, globally – responded to climate change as urgently as we have responded to the coronavirus pandemic, imagine the environmental healing we would facilitate.
It is an election year where I live, so I’ll leave you with a few open-ended questions that the events of 2020 have brought to light: how are your leaders (national and local) dealing with the coronavirus crisis? Have their responses been empathetic, equitable, and considerate of the disproportionate impacts that the crisis has had on various groups? Have they shaped their policies around scientific evidence every step of the way? Will they make the environment a priority in their recovery efforts? Stay safe, stay healthy…stay passionate, and stay involved!