Before and After pollution

Side effects of COVID-19: Unintended climate benefits  

By Shruti Neelakantan (DCU)

Have climate change issues been pushed back due to the current crisis? What are we learning about ourselves and the planet in the middle of the pandemic? Earlier in 2020, we welcomed the new year witnessing Australia’s feisty bushfires and New Delhi’s floating clouds of toxic air. As we were dealing with the loss of wildlife, people, and smog-affected respiratory tracts, other challenges have multiplied across the world. The COVID-19, popularly the coronavirus, has led us to a lockdown as we fight the pandemic. We do not have to turn on the news channel or scroll through thousands of news articles to be reminded of the grimness we are currently experiencing. 

As we stay home and watch the empty streets, there is plenty of time for reflection for self and the world. It is true that a lot has been demanded of us as we stay at our homes but other developments are taking place, including some positive ones such as cleaner air and water. Being an environmental enthusiast, it is hard to overlook a few of the improvements that have come about during these challenging times. It is also important to highlight some encouraging climate stories that have been unfolding across the globe. 

Reduced emissions and improved air quality

 Globally, flight restrictions have caused the aviation industry to take a strong hit economically and to count the number of employees they can hold on to.  This has led to panic among workers and raised issues of job security. The travel restrictions have led to complete lockdown of these services except for a few government-owned initiatives to bring back stranded citizens or health care needs

 An unsurprising benefit of these restrictions was the reduced emissions that were recorded. In China alone, there was a 25% reduction in GHG emissions within a four week period. Fewer travel chances and the current situation has brought about a significant reduction in carbon emissions and other countries across the world are imposing similar restrictions. It is predicted that this downward trend will follow and last as long as the restrictions remain. This trend has also resulted in cleaner air.

 In New Delhi, the city that was asphyxiating rapidly because of poor air quality and amplified pollution in late 2019, is experiencing something rare. Since the lockdown, the pollution levels have plummeted to as low as 50, or ‘good’, according to the Air Quality Index (AQI). This was only a week after the Prime Minister of India announced for a countrywide 21-day lockdown. There have been other stories highlighting the increased sighting of birds and animals in addition to cleaner air. Experts, however, warn that this is a short-lived setting and the situation will return to poor air quality when the pandemic clears out, perhaps with a vehemence. 

Air Quality and emission reductions have taken the top two spots that indicate positive progress. Increased clean water and wildlife spotting are other strong contenders to the podium. Another major element that stands out is waste. Since the introduction of social distancing, there has been a sharp dip in people interacting and physical meetings. Restaurants and most of the other waste-generating entities remain shut. Whilst there has been a surge in medical waste, food and general waste generated has reduced, significantly easing the collection and managing of waste. However, due to the nature of the pandemic, reusing materials including coffee cups have been discouraged. Single plastic use and zero waste management initiatives have been challenged and in some cases paused.

 A turning point? 

 Despite the length of the pandemic in hand, these environmental issues remain with us. It is important to understand the original causes of these problems and understand some of the developments at this time. The crisis has unexpectedly served as an opportunity to reflect on how we do things. While we are stuck at home and inconvenienced by restrictions with limited movement, it is important to realise some of the more pressing issues we fail to address amidst our busy lives.

A relatively short lockdown has shown us the potential that these improvements hold. It should serve as a reminder to keep building on consistent policy changes and advances that make us more responsible stakeholders as global citizens. A few weeks from now when we are ready to enjoy the sun, let’s hope the COVID-19 has taught us to make sustainable choices that address the well-being and health of ourselves, those surrounding us, and the place we live in.