Every day, billions of people in major cities across the globe wake up, get ready for work, and join the mass of commuters on busy highways, crowded buses, and packed trains. Or so they did until 2020.
Waking up to a different world
During the first quarter of this year, governments around the world have asked over 3.9 billion people to stay at home in an effort to slow the spread and the rate of infection of COVID-19. The outbreak of COVID-19 has had—and continues to have—a devastating impact on many countries, increasing economic hardship and costing thousands of lives. Yet, for the countries that reacted proactively, stay-at-home orders and social distancing are proving effective, as the spread of the virus is slowing down.
China was the first to impose a lockdown across the province of Hubei, shutting down transport to and from the region, while setting up control points across the country. Some of these measures would then be replicated in other affected countries in Asia. Hard-hit European countries have imposed stricter measures, such as restricting the movement of their citizens and reducing all non-essential travel. The USA took a more laissez faire approach, urging everyone to stay at home and avoid large gatherings. While other less-impacted countries have not yet gone to such extreme measures, many of them have closed their external borders, imposed quarantines, shut down non-essential workplaces, and encouraged their citizens to work from home.
Blue skies in lieu of silver linings
Notwithstanding the toll that Covid-19 has had on our public health systems, physical and mental health, and the economy, there is one place that we might look to for hope: the environment. As people started to stay home to protect vulnerable groups, we began to see reports of notably quieter cities, cleaner waters and clearer skies. For many citizens around the world, now is the first time in years that they can hear birds chirping in the morning or can count the stars at night. All of these effects are not just visible, but they are also measurable, especially when it comes to air pollution.
Air pollution levels in Madrid before (left) and after (right) the COVID-19 outbreak. Source: Plume Labs & Sifted
China, a country that’s no stranger to smog and gray winters, showed a 30% drop in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and roughly a 25% decline in carbon emissions just weeks after the pandemic measures were put into place. After a nationwide lockdown was implemented in Northern Italy, local commercial and industrial activity declined, and thus the region saw a similar drop in NO2 concentrations. This trend continues in major cities across Europe, including the capitals Madrid and Paris, according to satellite data gathered over a 10-day period during these cities’ lockdown period. Even the USA, known for its dependency on personal vehicles, has reported up to a 30% lower than average levels of NO2.
Pollution drops with less transport use, travel and manufacturing
The sudden drop in such a short period of time is extraordinary - especially for those cities that haven’t seen air quality like this in decades. In order to understand the causal relationships driving this decline and whether or not it will last, it’s important to understand the sources that contribute most substantially to current air pollution levels. As the graph above shows, transportation (15.9%) and manufacturing and construction (12.4%) are amongst the top three contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. These two sectors are also amongst those affected most by stay-at-home orders.
With non-essential businesses halted and employees telecommuting when possible, there is far less demand for transport. The United Kingdom alone has reported up to 83% less motorway traffic, and Spain observed road traffic had declined to one-tenth in just the first week of lockdown compared to the same week in 2019. Even the United States reported a major decline in traffic and congestion in metropolitan areas.
It’s not only the roads that have seen a reduction in traffic. The skies have been subject to a major change since the popularization of aviation began. With travel warnings, restrictions and bans put into place, the number of passenger flights has taken a dramatic drop. In late March, there was a notable decline of 88% of passengers in Europe, compared to the same period last year.
The strict ban on movement and required social distancing have taken a toll on some jobs that cannot be done from the safety of home. The manufacturing industry has suffered major temporary factory closures, further contributing to the decrease in air pollutants.
Looking past our present challenges - what can we expect?
The pandemic has caused tremendous devastation, not just on an economical level, but also on a very personal one. With many people mourning their loved ones, losing their jobs, and facing an uncertain future, this pandemic will change the world as we know it.
Without overlooking the havoc caused by the virus, it’s important to note how the governments’ protective measures to slow the pandemic have in many ways set the stage for an opportunity to reshape the environment as we know it. It has shown that, even in just a few short weeks of human inactivity, we can see noticeably positive results on the environment - results that years of policymaking and negotiations have strived for. But can we sustain these results and prolong their effects without resorting to our old comfortable ways? How can we make it last?
We need to look no further than the 2008 economic crisis for answers. As the graph above shows, annual global CO2 emissions fell slightly after the recession, but quickly surpassed historic peak levels afterward. Companies rushed to boost production to compensate for deficits and meet their projected outputs, thereby rapidly returning to pre-crisis pollution levels and worse. Dubbed “revenge pollution” by Greenpeace East Asia senior climate policy adviser Li Shuo, this rebound was observed after the Chinese government implemented their stimulus package primarily for large-scale infrastructure projects that eventually lead to skyrocketing levels in air pollution.
What can we gain while making up for losses?
As we look to the future and possible ways to recover from the current situation, we have two options. Go back to our old ways and continue economic progress at the expense of our planet, or take this as an opportunity to set in motion positive changes for the environment that will last for generations to come. Here are three arguments that give us reason for optimism.
Add a green touch to rebuilding our economies
After the 2008 financial crisis, many countries took advantage to introduce sustainable policies and measures into their economic stimulus packages. As an OECD report points out, these included financing energy efficiency projects (i.e. low-energy houses), investing in green transport infrastructure and offering tax measures encouraging the purchase of green products. Among EU countries, there has already been a push for a similar “green transition” in response to the economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. In fact, a ‘green recovery alliance’ consisting of 180 leaders has been formed to ensure any rescue package will be in-line with the European Commission’s Green Deal strategy to embrace a low-carbon future. Not everyone is following suit though, the monumental $2 trillion US relief package, $60 billion of which is geared towards bailing out the airline industry, which is a large contributor in air pollution, comes without any measures to address the climate crisis.
That may come as no surprise, as old habits can be hard to break. And as Xavier Querol, from the Spanish National Research Council has so aptly put it “The fight against pollution is a long-distance race, not a sprint.” We have to think long term and create solutions that are sustainable and work across various demographics. Clearly we cannot keep factories closed, prevent infrastructure from being built and enforce a work-from-home measure indefinitely. However, we can move towards supporting innovative projects that will help decarbonize the manufacturing process, choose more energy-efficient buildings, shift to remote work when possible and introduce cleaner forms of transport.
In particular, electrifying the transportation system is one key initiative that should be high on the priority lists for governments around the world. It would be an investment in infrastructure - a key factor to any stimulus plan - generating employment across sectors, while furthermore fulfilling their commitment to the Paris Agreement by reducing carbon emissions. As it stands today, there is already growing demand in electric vehicles as they become more popular, affordable and readily available. It shows that while people are not ready to give up their cars, they are willing to change their habits and turn to more sustainable transport options. Thus, by increasing investment into the already existing EV ecosystem through incentives, grants, and other initiatives, we could not just boost the economy, but also accelerate the transition to a more sustainable world.
Turn sustainable actions we’re taking now into lasting habits
Studies show that, on average, it takes around two months to turn a new behavior into a habit. The lockdown in Wuhan went on for almost three months while some affected countries are going into their second month. We very well may be on our way to forming new habits that will affect how we live post-pandemic. Many are taking this time to learn a new language, channel pent-up energy with online workouts, or use this opportunity to digitize their business and find innovative ways to help each other flourish. It’s an encouraging sign that even through these tough times, entrepreneurship and human inventiveness will prevail. Even our relationship with consumer goods is changing: with supply chains disrupted, we are buying more local products and using up fewer resources. On the downside though, purchases of single-use plastic have increased significantly amidst a reduction in recycling capacity as many plants are facing shutdowns due to the pandemic. Hopefully, by slowing down, we will see the value in what we have and taking the steps to better care for it. Perhaps most of all, we can learn to appreciate our local communities again.
Take hope from how communities are helping each other now
We are witnessing history in the making
We still don’t know the full extent of the long-term effects that COVID-19 will have on society or on the environment, but we have been given a glimpse of what we can achieve if we change certain ways that we live. The current conditions are definitely not what anyone would have wished, but we can take lessons from our collective experience and put them to work rebuilding a stronger and more sustainable future for all.