How the Coronavirus Measures Affect the Environment and What We Can Learn from It
First of all: I shall state the obvious:
A few weeks ago, the Corona Virus has started to spread around countries all over the world, and drastic measures have been taken by governments in an attempt to control the rate of infection. It goes without saying that the life of almost everyone has changed significantly since then. Many people are suffering these days under either the virus itself or the measures that have been imposed by governments to deal with the crisis and also the global economy is in great distress.
In the following, I will elaborate on some unintended consequences regarding our environment that came along with the Corona measures, and what we should learn from these consequences and the current situation in general in order to gain hope that also the environmental crisis can be tackled.
Some examples of the unintended positive consequences of the Coronavirus:
1. Improved air quality:
According to the BBC, the air quality in many countries has improved due to the lockdown measures, especially in industrial nations such as China. There has been a drop of pollution through gases like Nitrogen Dioxide as car traffic has decreased and several production processes have stopped since the Corona measures have been introduced.
This improvement of air quality became, for example, very evident to the naked eye in the North of India. The Himalaya is visible again for people in some of India’s Northern regions from over a 100km distance as the smog cleared over the past weeks.
Generally, the improvement in air quality has become noticeable in many big cities whose streets are usually filled with cars – not only to the monitoring stations but to the people living in and around those cities. The skyline of Madrid became visible again to surrounding cities such as Alcala de Henares and in New York
2. Decline in greenhouse gases:
As the National Geographic reported, falls in coal consumption and industrial output, declining power demands and depressed manufacturing caused a drop of greenhouse gas emission in countries all over the world. In China, for example, carbon emissions declined around 18 percent between early February and mid-March and the European Union’s carbon emissions could fall by nearly 400 metric tons this year (more than the UK’s overall carbon emission of year 2019).
3. Clearer water in Venice’ Canals:
Due to less boat traffic in the canals of Venice, the water appears to be a lot clearer. Usually, motor-boats swirl sediments from the ground to the surface which beclouds the water, whereas now the sight to the ground is free.
That does not mean automatically, that the water quality itself has improved – but it enables people in Venice to appreciate the underwater life of the canals again. It makes them understand that in these water ways that are usually mainly seen as water streets to transport humans, there is a whole population of different types of fish, birds and plants inhabiting the canals at the same time.
However, we do need to stay realistic:
These consequences do have a positive impact on our environment, but...
1. They only have been possible by restricting our fundamental rights.
Everyone’s fundamental rights (such as the right to free movement, travel, assembly, work etc. ) are massively restricted at the moment in many countries, which is the reason why the aforementioned positive changes for the environment were rendered possible.
Regarding environmental problems, it can by no means be the right way to attain certain sustainable objectives by restricting fundamental rights to such an extent.
2. These effects are temporary.
The changes are only temporary since hopefully soon those measures will not be as restrictive anymore and countries attempt to regain a sense of greater normalcy in for individuals.
Once at that point, pollution rates are in fact likely to rise again, as factories may speed up their production again to make up for the economic loss during the lockdown phase in order to stimulate economic growth again. It is also possible that industries will reach out to cheaper but more harmful methods in production, for example making increased use again of fossil fuels.
We can see therefore, that these consequences for the environment can only be seen to a limited extent as a success, and that the way they were induced, namely by massively restricting our fundamental freedoms – would not be an option to tackle the environmental crisis for a democratic society in the future.
Nevertheless, seeing how the nature recovers during the lockdown can still teach us a few things:
1. Governments are generally capable agents of change.
And as stated above, the measures to fight Corona are without doubt very drastic and restrictive of our fundamental rights. However, applying the current situation to the environmental crisis, we can see by the way governments tackle the corona crisis that they realistically would be able to also impose more measures to slow down climate change and the overall pollution of the environment.
Such measures would not even need to restrict our personal rights: actions such as financial support from governments for natural alternatives to plastic packaging, stricter policies and controls in production or advancing the shift to cleaner transport and energy generation could already make a significant impact.
The environmental crisis should be treated as the crisis it is. It is easy not to note the urgency of an issue many of us can't see with our own eyes, but governments should keep in mind that everything that is done at this stage in order to protect the environment will only benefit and make it a lot easier in the long run to preserve the environment which will inevitably be necessary.
2. If people understand the urgency of a matter and feel like the topic is personally relevant for them – they are rather willing to adapt their behaviour accordingly.
Most people have been very supportive so far to comply with the Coronavirus measures and to behave considerately as long as it seemed reasonable to them. The media and the governments that are consistently addressing the topic of Corona and therefore raise awareness and understanding have been playing the leading role to gain the support of the people. The same could be applied to the environmental crisis:
When people personally understand and have sufficient information about environmental problems, they would adapt their behaviour to act more sustainable and care more. But it is important that people voluntarily choose to act a certain way, agreeing themselves that this is the right way to think and behave – that will make the biggest difference in the end.
This is why it is crucial that governments, the media, but also us raise awareness by addressing environmental topics in a way that makes people voluntarily reflect on their behaviour and take on the responsibility that every single one of us has to care about our environment.
3. There is hope:
Seeing pictures of the Himalaya taken in India, or reading that you can see the ground in the canals of Venice again, looking at data giving evidence of a decline in greenhouse gas emissions and an improvement in air quality in the world – that gives hope!
It enables us to see what the objective should be regarding environmental standards and reminds us that things can still be done. In these times, we have to experience how it is to be deprived of things indispensable for us, such as social contacts, the freedom to movement and a steady income but the current situation also allows us to reflect on what we already have, what we need and what we might be able to relinquish.