The Environment: A Silver Lining to The Coronavirus Pandemic?

The novel Coronavirus is spreading rapidly around the global population, doubling every few days. First, it hit China, then it hit Europe, and now the USA is becoming its epicentre.

In an effort to curb the spread of the virus, many countries have imposed lockdowns, banning all but essential work and travel. Businesses have been encouraged to make their employees work from home where possible, whilst some countries have banned travel altogether.

However, this seemingly disastrous situation could have a silver lining. It may be a small one, but the environment seems to be benefiting here. Let’s explore how Coronavirus has impacted the environment.

Where has Coronavirus hit hardest?

As previously stated, China was the first country to be infected with the coronavirus. Over 80,000 people picked up the virus in a matter of months, mainly in Wuhan. Factories were told to close, including Tesla’s Gigafactory in Shanghai. The entire city of Wuhan was placed on complete lockdown, with Chinese officials blocking roads out of the city of 11 million people.

Since then the virus has hit Europe, with Italy being the hardest hit so far, seeing over 80,000 cases and almost 10,000 deaths. Many European countries have followed similar patterns, including Spain, France, Germany and the UK. All of these counties have imposed lockdowns, advising all but essential not to take place.

More recently, the virus went mainstream in the USA, particularly in the New York area. Cases have soared to over 100,000 whilst deaths sit over 1000. Localised closures are happening within the US, depending on where the outbreak is spreading rapidly.

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As you can see by the pie chart shown above, the largest contributors to global carbon emissions are China, the US and Europe. Although this is not surprising, you can imagine what effect lockdowns are having on these areas emissions. Cars are not running, businesses are not open, a smaller amount of power is needed, and factories are not pumping out dangerous greenhouse gases. Here’s the effect that seems to have.

Environmental Impact – Air

One of the most potent greenhouse gases out there is Nitrous Oxide. It has around 300 times the amount of global warming power as carbon dioxide over a 100-year timescale. In general, it comes from the agricultural sector as fertiliser, as well as being produced by factories.

Like other greenhouse gases, it hangs around in the atmosphere for an average of 114 years, more than methane (12 years), but less than CO2 (hundreds of years). Furthermore, whilst it stays in the stratosphere, it is exposed to sunlight and oxygen, converting it to nitrogen oxides. These can damage the ozone layer that protects the earth from UV radiation.

The trouble is, our use of nitrous oxides has increased rapidly since the 1980s, contributing significantly to the warming of our planet. Below is a graph showing the increase in different pollutants against time:

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In the United States, nitrous oxide makes up about 6% of total pollutants and mainly comes from agriculture. The chart below shows this:

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A similar trend is produced by China. However, due to the Coronavirus, the amount of this pollutant in the atmosphere has significantly decreased, almost to nothing.

NASA satellite images have mapped the decrease in emissions here:

NASA data showing nitrous oxide before and after China put the breaks on its economy to contain coronavirus
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A similar scenario has happened in Italy, another hotspot for the virus:

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Italian NO2 Levels – Before
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Italian NO2 Levels – After

Environmental Impact – Water

Despite the excellent air quality improvements, it doesn’t end there! Water quality has seen an improvement in some of the worst-hit areas across the globe.

In Venice, the canals, which are usually smelly and polluted, have turned into clear water. Usually, tourists swarm the canals, and, combined with a vast amount of water traffic, they become opaque and polluted. Impressively, the water actually looks blue where it usually looks brown.

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Additionally, a dolphin was filmed swimming in the port of Cagliari, one of the largest seaports in Italy. The port can see up to 50 million tonnes of cargo each year and has now been reduced to considerably less. These are waters that wildlife has previously travelled in, but have been pushed out by humans.

What can we learn from this?

There are strong messages to be learnt here. Before the crisis, many would argue that it was not possible to reduce emissions that quickly. However, humanity has proved to itself that it is completely possible to do so. Obviously, shutting down the worlds largest economies for any large period of time is not going to be practical, but there are certainly steps that we can take to reduce the emissions we produce.

Much like the Coronavirus, we need to flatten the curve on emissions. This would allow us more time to develop technologies that are capable of solving the problems on a larger scale. So, how exactly can we flatten the curve?

Working from Home

Over the lockdown period, there has been a surge in people working from home. This has led to reduced fuel consumption, and, even around a 10% reduction in UK electricity usage.

Working from home is a very logical solution to the climate crisis. In many cases, it is not essential for employees to be at work, just that they are doing their work. People would save time travelling, especially in dense cities like Los Angeles. Furthermore, people could be more flexible with their working hours, allowing them to be more productive.

Of course, there are still jobs that cannot be done from home, including manufacturing and healthcare. However, vast numbers of administration jobs could be done from home.

Businesses would save money as they would not need to have such a large headquarters. Moreover, teams would still be able to collaborate via the internet. Humanity has the technological capability to do this, businesses just need to implement it.

Dealing with Animals

Although this coronavirus outbreak was believed to be transmitted to humans through bats, viruses can come from many different animals, in many different countries.

In fact, the vast majority of viruses that have become pandemics in recent times have been transmitted from animals. This doesn’t just happen naturally, it happens because humans are handling animals, usually badly.

Mass production meat facilities contain thousands of animals extremely close together, along with humans who aren’t necessarily taking the appropriate hygiene precautions.

In the future, humanity must seriously consider its outlook on meat. Reducing our consumption of it would be ideal, but not a requirement to reduce the chance of a new pandemic. New, stricter, enforced regulations on the treatment of animals would certainly reduce the number of pandemics we experience.

Along with the absence of many viral pandemics, not eating meat also has a major positive impact on the environment. Meat indirectly releases greenhouse gases. Crops are grown with fertiliser, producing nitrous oxides, and are fed to animals, which produce methane. Greenhouse gas emissions differ depending on the meat type, but beef generally emits the most as the cows produce a lot of methane.

Will humans take action?

Sadly, nobody knows. Will the ‘slap in the face’ of a pandemic pull people together? The fact that people are hoarding toilet roll seems to contradict that statement, however, we must remember that the toilet roll hoarders are only a small portion of the global population.

Maybe it will take more than a pandemic to pull humanity together. You may think, what could be worse than a pandemic like this? A climate catastrophe could be worse than this in the long term, potentially wiping out the entire of humanity. Effectively a mass suicide. Let’s not allow that to happen.

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