The coronavirus pandemic has not only had an impact on the health of the global community, but on the health of the environment as well. In contrast to humankind though, COVID-19 looks good on the natural world. The Himalayas in India, for example, are visible from a distance of over 200 kilometres for the first time in over 30 years. In Italy, Venice is seeing the wonders of the natural world come to life as jellyfish visibly drift along once opaque canals.
Why are parts of the natural world benefitting from COVID-19?
The visible improvements to the environment are in part due to approximately 1/3 of the global population living in some form of lockdown and in part due to the shutdown of global economic activity (e.g. transportation and industry) because of the coronavirus pandemic. The result is a drastic reduction in air pollution across the world. According to a report published by IQAir, an air quality technology company based in Switzerland, air pollution levels are dropping at unprecedented rates – fine particulate air pollution has been reduced by up to 60% in some parts of the world. Because the dramatic improvement in global air quality is a direct impact of restrictive measures put in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic, a heightened awareness exists that it’s indeed possible to improve the health of the natural world by way of collective action. The need for economic systems and industrial systems around the world to be rebuilt in the aftermath of COVID-19 puts forward an opportunity, therefore, for governments to do so in a transformative way more in line with a sustainable future – thereby becoming better prepared for the climate crisis.
According to University College London (UCL) Climate Science Professor Christopher Rapley – who was previously Director of the Science Museum, Director of the British Antarctic Survey, and Chairman of the London Climate Change Partnership (among other posts) – the UK government was incredibly ill-prepared for COVID-19 because the advice as well as the common-sense preparations for a major pandemic were ignored:
“And so the message with climate change is are you prepared or are you not prepared? Are you taking your expert seriously? Or are you just shrugging your shoulders hoping that it’ll go away? And, of course, that plays out in both the world of mitigation (reducing your contribution), but very much more so in the world of adaptation. How do you, given that quite a degree of climate change is inevitable, ensure that your nation is robust against what’s coming down the tracks?”
I spoke to Dr. Joeri Rogelj – a lecturer at The Grantham Institute for Climate Change in London – about whether or not governments around the world are likely to take the bittersweet opportunity to rebuild economic systems and industrial systems in a more sustainable way to ensure that, in the words of Professor Rapley, nations are “robust” and “not caught flatfooted” in response to the climate crisis.
Because everyday people play a role in climate change mitigation as well, I spoke to Dr. Helen Adams – a lecturer in Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation at King’s College London – about whether or not the coronavirus lockdown will impact how the global community views the environment moving forward.
The fear that an opportunity to head in a more sustainable direction won’t be grasped stems from the understandable assumption that governments as well as everyday people will be concentrated on tackling human welfare and economic welfare in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. Professor Rapley commented:
“There will be a pressure to simply get bread on the table. An awful lot of people are seriously concerned, for obvious reasons, about their jobs. Some people have already lost jobs or companies are collapsing. And so, in the scramble to get back to the point where you can earn enough money to pay for your mortgage or to pay for your rent, we may just slip back into old ways and this profound change won’t take place. It’ll be really interesting to see which view prevails in the longer term.”
Regardless, Professor Rapley also acknowledged that a discussion will open up based on experience. He stated:
“It would’ve been a theoretical discussion previously. It’s now something that people have experienced and the psychology and the neuroscience tells us that that’s a much more powerful framing for the discussion to take place in.”
It’s unclear whether or not governments as well as everyday people will reflect on the coronavirus pandemic whilst reviewing climate change tactics moving forward. It’s especially up-in-the-air due to the fact that the global pandemic is still ongoing. There may not be a clear answer until next year (at least) because The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) – in which countries are meant to provide updated climate targets – was postponed from November 2020 to an unspecified date in 2021.