The curious case of an improving environment

Shivaji Bagchi
The fight against COVID-19 has inadvertently resulted in swift positive impact on the environment. Will any of these changes stick once the pandemic passes?
Managing Editor at Unravel

The fight against COVID-19 has inadvertently resulted in swift positive impact on the environment. Will any of these changes stick once the pandemic passes?

As a millennial born in the early 80s, the regular discourse I have heard on the environment and climate has been negative. From the greenhouse effect and polar ice melting at alarming rates, to sea levels rising and holes in the ozone layer, to increasing natural calamities and plant and animal species becoming extinct or coming to the verge of extinction – the list is endless.

The media was earlier awash with these events and stories. Slowly, as the years passed by, the general degradation of the environment seemed to become the new normal. Accepted. It seemed the human race had started to simply accept rising temperatures, greater deforestation and urbanisation, and a greater number of natural calamities as a way of life. Most devastatingly, perhaps, we’ve even had the US President quip that if climate change was real, how could bitterly cold spells of weather be explained.

In the midst of this, of course there are some positive actions on climate that we have seen over the past few years. But the most prominent, visible impact has come from an unusual intervention.

Enter COVID-19

As we started coming to grips with the coronavirus outbreak and as nation after nation went into lockdown, the environment took a turn – one that we have never seen or experienced before.

Air pollution plummeted with most industries shut, vehicles going off the roads and airplanes largely banished from the skies. Across Europe, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels dropped by approximately 40% in April, according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. The same report found that particulate matter (PM2.5) concentrations dropped by 10% in the same period. Quite simply, this means breathing is much easier now.

Although COVID-19 poses a grave health hazard, it is important to bear in mind that these two forms of pollution (NO2 and PM2.5) combined claim around 470,000 lives each year in Europe alone.

Figure 1: Country-level results in Europe

Note: Since the monitoring data was for PM10, the changes in concentrations were converted to PM2.5 using country-specific annual average ratios calculated from the European Environment Agency statistics.
Source: CREA based on EEA, NOAA ISD, UNCAR, Oxford COVID Government Response Tracker

Elsewhere, pollution monitoring satellites of the NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) found that there was a significant decrease in NO2 levels over China by February 2020 – which is when China imposed quarantine.

Figure 2: Comparison of NO2 levels over China between January and February 2020

Source: ESA/NASA

The stark difference can be observed in February, when almost half a billion people went into partial or complete lockdown in China. Of the total NO2 emissions in Asia, China is responsible for almost half. When economic activity in China reduces to this scale, we are for once given an understanding of what our environment can be like. And this happened in all of one month!

Similarly, in India, whose cities have among the worst air pollution levels globally, air quality has improved significantly. In the capital New Delhi, PM2.5 concentration decreased by 71% within a week of the lockdown beginning in March. Dolphins have returned to India’s holiest (and most abused) river system again after 30 years, with many citing that the water in the Ganges is actually fit for direct drinking at several points along its course.

This has all been made possible by the lockdown, which has reduced human economic activity. Of course, giving any of this permanence is almost impossible, for these steps have been enforced and are extreme. But they have shown us in no uncertain terms what is possible.

The way we conduct our economic activities needs a radical rethink and change, and it needs to begin at the highest levels of policymaking. A greater amount of governmental grit and business restraint can go a long way in correcting the path we have been on.

There is reason for optimism

There are signs that authorities are willing to implement change, and we are seeing some of it play out already – led by a few European cities.

In May, Athens announced it will liberate public space from cars. This entails the allocation of 50,000 square metres of public space for pedestrians and cyclists. At the heart of the plan is the tourism industry. The Greek capital will create a four-mile grand walkway tying the archaeological sites of the historic city. Traffic will be banned in several areas. Athens’ mayor acknowledged that the pandemic did act as a catalyst to ramp up infrastructure that may have otherwise taken a long time to build.

Similarly, the city of Budapest has introduced 12 miles of temporary bike lanes and this may well remain beyond the pandemic. In Paris, meanwhile, the government is incentivising the use of bicycles – with people clearly observing the dramatic change in air quality due to the lockdown. Dublin, Milan, Rome, Brussels, Berlin and Sydney are all embarking on similar initiatives of their own to drive lasting changes in habit kickstarted by the pandemic.

The reason is simple – people appreciate a cleaner environment.

In Wales, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) is using high tech surveillance to confront crafty waste operators who are using the pandemic as an excuse to go unnoticed. NRW is using satellite imagery, drone footage and other tools to identify and track waste criminals. Today, we have the added advantage of using technology to further our goals. Adrian Evans, head of NRW’s Tackling Waste Crime initiative, explained this: “We have had to modify our ways of working by developing technological solutions to support our work and ensure that waste operators comply with environmental regulations…We have the capability and technology to continue to identify and pursue those that flout the law.”

Large religious institutions too are starting to push for change. Very recently, the Vatican urged the private sector and all Catholics to immediately ditch investment in fossil fuel producers and other proponents of environmental damage. The Pope said that “building safe, accessible, reliable and efficient energy systems based on renewable energy sources would make it possible to respond to the needs of the poorest populations and at the same time limit global warming”. Coming from the highest authority of the Holy See, this message transcends a particular geography, and is likely to disseminate across nations and populations, and hopefully initiate change among communities. Even the sceptic will likely admit that the symbolism, at least, is difficult to cast aside.

Examples such as these shine through in the midst of uncertainty. Governments across the world have announced fiscal packages to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, and many initiatives announced place the environment at the heart of all considerations. However, how much of the stimulus will be channelled towards making a positive environmental impact is debatable.

A survey by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at University of Oxford presents interesting insights, and identifies the levels of impact and long-run multiplier effects of different COVID-19 related government policies around the world. It finds that policies with the highest positive impact were clean energy infrastructure investment, clean R&D spending, green spaces and natural infrastructure investment, and buildings upgrades (energy efficiency).

Figure 3: Impact of COVID-related government policies
(Target group mean survey results aggregated using relativity-adjusted scores)

Source: Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment | Working Paper No. 20 02 ISSN 2732 4214 (Online)

Will we learn and act?

What the past few months have shown us, is that change is possible, and it can happen fast. This is not a song for deindustrialisation, or to stop the use of air-conditioning, or to abandon cars and airplanes. It’s simply a call to reflect on what we’ve seen, to be responsible, and to exercise a degree of restraint. It is a time to reassess how we carry on with economic activity, and improve our processes and nurture nature along with achieving our economic goals.

This is perhaps a good time for us to reflect on our actions and become aware of our responsibility vis-à-vis the environment. Or else, these gains made with respect to the environment during the lockdown will only be remembered in the future as we do other fond memories – with the clichéd adage “the good old days”.

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Managing Editor at Unravel

Shivaji is managing editor at Unravel. He also co-founded StoneBench.

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