Silver Linings from COVID-19

As the COVID-19 virus has swept across the world, communities, countries and industries have been hit hard during this unprecedented pandemic. In no way is there any silver lining that could justify the unprecedented destruction and loss that this virus is causing. However, the international response has resulted in unintended environmental benefits that are important to highlight. The demonstrated ability to improve environmental conditions so rapidly can serve as cause for future hope in our ability to effectively mitigate climate change as an international community.

China and Italy, the two countries that have been hit the hardest, have experienced several environmental benefits since their quarantine began.

China: The air pollution levels in China have decreased significantly following the shutting down of factories and vehicle operations, particularly air travel. Experts estimate that emissions over the past month have been about 25% lower than normal, which is a significant reduction considering that China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

NASA Satellite images show the change in emissions over China. NO2 is nitrogen dioxide, a gaseous air pollutant emitted by cars, trucks, and power/industrial plants.

Italy: NO2 emissions have significantly decreased and Venice’s canals have seen the return of fish with the reduction of pollution from the usual boat traffic.

Satellite images from the European Space Agency showing decreased NO2 levels over Italy.

Stanford University’s environmental resource economist Marshall Burke performed calculations to predict the lives that would be saved from a reduction in air pollution over the past two months. According to Burke’s calculations, it is estimated that the pollution reduction has saved the lives of 4,000 children under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70 in China. Even under conservative assumptions, it seems that the number of deaths that would have been caused by respiratory issues from pollution exceeds those caused by the virus, suggesting that fewer premature deaths would occur if pollution was decreased long-term.

Communications Director of Oil Change International, David Turnbull, says, “The coronavirus is the biggest problem facing the world today, but before the outbreak, the biggest problem was climate change. And after the outbreak goes away, it will again be climate change.”

Again, COVID-19 is deadly, tragic, and has taken a huge toll on the economy, there is no denying that. However, the irony lies in that climate change will also cause massive destruction, both financially and in terms of human lives, however, the international reaction has been far less cautious or extensive.

The drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution has convinced researchers that this could be a wakeup call to revealing that it is in fact possible to reduce our emissions and if companies make regulations and sustainable practices, it will promote a greener economy. Researcher Jacinta Bowler sums up this premise, stating that the unintended environmental benefits [demonstrate] that this global health disaster is an opportunity to assess - which aspects of modern life are absolutely necessary, and what positive changes might be possible if we change our habits on a global scale.

Another important point to highlight is that the occurrence of deadly diseases like COVID-19 have increased and will continue to increase due to the shrinking of natural habitats. The reduction of habitat forces species into smaller corridors where they come into closer and more frequent contact with each other and humans, increasing the potential infection rate. Species that have been shown to spread more zoonotic diseases (spread between animals and humans), such as rodents and bats, are also more likely to thrive when natural habitats are destroyed.

How can you continue to practice sustainability at home?

  • Manage your appliance use: be aware of how much you are using heat and AC. Instead, bundle up or open some windows for fresh air.

  • Consider a family subscription to produce services to get fresh produce delivered to your house to avoid grocery stores while still supporting local businesses. Some great ones are FarmFreshToYou and Imperfect Produce.

  • If your classes are now online, see how much work you can move to your computer or tablet to reduce your paper usage.

  • Plant some herbs (or other veggies that grow quickly) to make meals more fresh and exciting, and to keep you busy!

  • If you’re ordering things online, try to order in bulk and fill up your cart before submitting the order to reduce shipping emissions.

  • Go through your closet to find items you can sell or donate to those who may need support in these difficult times.

  • Take this time to check your home for unsustainable practices:

- Do you use reusable napkins? (wash them after each use though!)

- Do you compost?

- How many outlets are plugged in when they don’t need to be?

- How many lights are on that don’t need to be?

  • Keep yourself updated on important news, but also try to make time to read positive news stories as well! BeautifulNewsDaily reports positive daily news stories.

The bottom line: Your first priority should be staying safe and healthy, and then consider how you can maintain sustainable practices at home once you’ve settled into a comfortable routine. (Do your part to keep others healthy!)

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