Articles | Environment & Climate Change |

COVID-19: Environmental Lessons

Overview

Thinking green

Whilst it is a trite observation to make, the immense impact that COVID-19 is having on our daily lives has left us all increasingly looking to the environment for comfort.

We are all seeking the solace of nature, whether that is in our gardens, local parks, woodlands, rivers, canals or indeed even in simple window boxes or the presence of indoor plants. Amongst most people there is a real sense that these aspects of our life represent moments of calm during a period of great turbulence.

For that reason, we have prepared this short article to outline and analyse some of the positive environmental stories that we have been reading over the last few weeks. Over the course of this period we will be releasing other articles focusing on the environment as some food for thought.  

We hope that this article and the others we put together will encourage us all to think about how we can make small changes in our own lives that might benefit the environment and, more generally, to set-out some optimism that on a wider basis this may lead to changes in the international approach to the protection of the environment.  

The global picture

It is safe to say that nobody was seeking a temporary reduction of global emissions by means of a global pandemic, and although the human cost of this pandemic can never be offset by the following, there are at least some limited positives that we can observe at this moment in time.1  

  • Although the economic downturn impacting China has been significant, the measures implemented by the Chinese Government to contain COVID-19 are estimated to have resulted in reductions of up to a quarter of the country's CO2 emission over the first two months of the year (meaning that overall COVID-19 could have cut global emissions by 200MtCO2 to date).

  • Satellite-based data recordings show a reduction in nitrogen dioxide emitted by motor vehicles and industrial facilities dropping by up to 37% and coal consumption at power plants was down 36%. 

  • The proportion of days with "good quality air" was up 11.4% compared with the same time last year in 337 cities across China.

The picture is much the same in other regions experiencing lockdown. Satellites that detect traces of human activity (tailpipe vehicle emissions, fossil fuel burned and industrial activities) show significant reductions in emissions in countries such as Italy, Spain, Germany and South Korea.2

Air quality improvements have been seen (both visually and from particle readings) across nations around the world, with numerous social media posts of clear skies in cities that are used to prolonged periods of smog. On a global scale, the Global Carbon Project has estimated that we could see a "5% or more drop in carbon dioxide this year, something not seen since the end of World War Two."3 In addition, some key published figures include4:

  • Madrid's average nitrogen dioxide levels decreased by 56% week-on-week after the ban on non-essential travel;

  • New York's level of pollution has reduced by nearly 50% because of measures to contain the virus.

In the UK, after two weeks of lockdown, the emissions research data is beginning to filter through from numerous data analysts. Data released showed drops in particle pollution of a third to a half in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff and reductions of about quarter in Manchester, York and Belfast.5

Two graphs published by the University of York and DEFRA show significant drops in (i) particulate matter pollution, and (ii) nitrogen dioxide levels:

Particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution is down sharply in certain UK cities

Coronavirus shutdown has significantly cut nitrogen dioxide levels in many UK cities

Although we should all take some comfort in these figures, unfortunately The European Space Agency's early March data showed that NO2 levels had increased since some industrial activity has resumed in China and there is a danger that once all restrictions have been lifted internationally, that it will simply be business as usual when it comes to the presence of large amounts of particulates in our daily commutes.

As research consolidates, it will be important to take note of the biggest factors in the reduction of emissions and pollutants. Currently, predictions and modelling form around a reduction in road traffic, given that other contributors such as gas power operations, heating for buildings and farming are unlikely to have significantly changed due to their 'critical service' status.

2008 and 2015

As more data and studies are published in the coming months, many will question whether the environmental impact can be sustained, or if the reductions will be offset or even dramatically reversed by any economic stimulus response to the crisis.

Unfortunately, past experience sheds light on the latter. Global stimulus plans following the financial crisis in 2008 and the Chinese domestic downturn in 2015 saw economic activity outweigh the short-term gains on emissions and pollutants. Moreover, the CarbonBrief report states that "shaving 25% off energy consumption and emissions for two weeks would only reduce annual figures by around one percent." Comments from Pierre Friedlingstein (chair in mathematical modelling of the climate system at the University of Exeter) adds that, "even if there is a decline in emissions in 2020, let's say 10% or 20%, it's not negligible, it's important, but from a climate point of view, it would be a small dent if emissions go back to pre-COVID-19 crisis levels in 2021".

Perhaps, the lesson learnt from 2008 and 2015 is that any economic stimulus plan should carefully consider targeting clean energy and energy efficiency investments as a means of economic growth following a global downturn.

Once the UN Cop26 is re-scheduled, nations should use the platform to drive such change. The fiscal response by the UK government to the COVID-19 pandemic could be used as a means to argue that the 'climate emergency' requires substantial thought along similar economic policy lines. The UK Government's recent Contracts For Difference Scheme has kickstarted renewable subsidies but perhaps these need to go further in attempts to avoid a climate related economic downturn. 

A time to reflect

One area which we should all pay attention to is our own behavioural changes. Studies at numerous institutions show that times of change can lead to the introduction of lasting habits. The forced lockdown has brought about subtle changes in all of our behaviour, for example a reduction in unnecessary travel and the cutting down of food waste.

It has also made us all realise how important local communities can be in order to tackle a crisis. Collective action can make a difference where supported by government policy, a great example being the incredible response by the UK population to Government and community requests for volunteers.

All of the above is caveated by our caution of branding any of the impact of COVID-19 on the environment as a 'silver lining', given the reality of its effect on lives, health services, jobs and mental health.

However, that does not mean that we cannot all take a minute and reflect on the fact that we all appreciate our natural world more than ever during times like these.  

References

1 CarbonBrief, "Analysis: Coronavirus temporarily reduced China's CO2 emissions by a quarter", CarbonBreif.org

2 New York Times, "Watch the Footprint of Coronavirus Spread Across Countries", New York Times website

3 Global Carbon Project, "Coronavirus could trigger biggest fall in carbon emissions since World War Two", Reuters website

4 Sky News, "Coronavirus: How lockdowns have caused drop in air pollution across the world", Sky News website

5 The Guardian, "Coronavirus UK lockdown causes big drop in air pollution", Guardian website

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