Oxford, England – If humanity were to hit the reset button to deal aggressively with climate change and environmental health problems, the world would look something like this.
Measures to deal with the scourge of the novel coronavirus have justifiably taken center stage in recent weeks, and intensive work is being done across the world to throttle the spread of COVID-19 and create a vaccine to blunt its tragic consequences.
Yet there is an upside to recent tragic events and it can serve a useful purpose. The corollary effects of social distancing and quarantine, police checkpoints, grounded air traffic, and shuttered factories include a sudden decrease in industrial pollution and climate-gas emissions.
Industrial powerhouses like China and South Korea have experienced dramatically lower measures of air pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, which is emitted from automobile engines, power plants, and other industrial activity.
In the United States, some parts of the country have not shut down commercial activity and social interaction as aggressively as others, but citizens of major cities like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles have noticed that along with enforced distancing and isolation, they are able to enjoy cleaner air, clearer skies, and far less exhaust-choked and perilous thoroughfares.
Italy’s cities, smothered in some of the worst air pollution in Europe, have improved dramatically under the country’s lockdown.
This does not mean that the relentless plague of COVID-19 is somehow desirable. The toll of coronavirus-linked deaths and suffering is far too severe and tragic to rationalize, and the ensuing social and economic disruption has unleashed dire consequences on families and communities, many of whom are vulnerable and ill-equipped to deal with the deprivation of lockdowns and closures. Nevertheless, taking a step back from the human costs of the brutal pandemic allows us to assess the impacts that a judicious transformation of our economy and lifestyles might bring.
For example, some elements of the supply chain for American goods remain under strain, even though conspicuous shortages are likely the result of consumers buying about five times as much toilet paper, canned food, onions and yeast in stores as they normally would. Yet managers of grocery stores and organic markets in many states continue to put food on their shelves as shipments of Sri Lankan tiger prawns, Scottish salmon, and Latin American tomatoes dry up, mostly because they are able to draw on local and regional farms and suppliers.
While this doesn’t mean that everything goes off without a hitch for most customers, such reversion to slow-food, locally provisioned products is probably far better environmentally and may taste better as well.
Cleaner air not only feels refreshing; it leads to more positive health outcomes, especially in the midst of a viral pandemic that attacks the respiratory system. Locations with excessive air pollution have long been highly correlated with acute asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, serious allergies, and other health complaints.
While data from epicenters like China — which have already endured a full cycle of infestation, infection, and patchy recovery — remain somewhat unclear, findings from other countries like South Korea and Singapore that lie earlier on the curve than the U.S. and United Kingdom suggest that the cleaner air of locked-down or intermittently quarantined areas has yielded positive effects on patients’ ability to avoid serious infection and recover more quickly.
Beyond the specific COVID-19 threat during a pandemic, however, the decline in automobile traffic, the cessation of much industrial activity, the grounding of flights, and most people’s reversion to their communities gives us a sense of what the world might look like if widely recommended climate solutions were implemented.
Industrialized nations are not yet thronged with electric vehicles and renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, but it is likely that these will expand considerably in the coming decade.
Communities with lower emissions and less air pollution have long been a theoretical outcome but now, during the pandemic, we can begin to see their benefits.
Yes, people want to get back to work, see their remote friends and family, go to concerts, hang with strangers, and enjoy restaurants, bars, clubs, markets, and sports.
But when this crisis recedes, as it undoubtedly will, perhaps we’ll learn to spend more time in our communities, frequent shops with closer links to nearby farms and production operations, get to know our neighbors better, and take steps to enjoy cleaner, healthier, more sustainable conditions in which to live. This all, indeed, might be difficult to give up.
Peter Wynn Kirby (www.peterwynnkirby.com) is an environmental specialist at the University of Oxford.