The Covid-19 effect: what does it mean for the planet?

As humans, we think we’re in charge. The global pandemic shows the world has other ideas.

Many human beings are resourceful and imaginative, and we certainly all get hungry from time to time. We might be forgiven, then, for taking advantage of our surroundings, for exploiting the earth’s resources, cultivating land and farming livestock. If we take a step back, however, we see how, since the Industrial Revolution, we have quite literally been playing with fire.

We have viewed the events of the past year with horror and disbelief. Understandably, we don’t like planetary attacks on civilisation: Australian bushfires, Kenyan locust attacks, and a global pandemic are truly dystopian – and suddenly right outside our front door.

Since the recent outbreaks of SARS, MERS and Ebola, and the analysis that followed, scientists have warned that human behaviour - what we choose to do with the planet and its resources – will have a direct bearing on what happens next.

Opportunity

Disastrous as it is, the imposition of lockdown and the paralysis of the world’s major economies provides a unique set of opportunities. Whenever would a UK prime minister get to spend weeks at his country retreat – convalescing, yes, but surely reflecting and taking stock of this unprecedented challenge too? Lockdown means that the planet is experiencing a hiatus too.

Social distancing means the volume of New York traffic has dramatically reduced - so much so that carbon monoxide levels are down by 50% compared with March 2019. In business as usual Delhi, Air Quality Index (AQI) levels can exceed 200 on any given day. Without its usual 11 million cars on the road, they’re currently below 20 – 5 points below the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) ‘safe’ level. London too has seen a decline in pollution, and some experts are predicting the largest reduction for 70 years: “I wouldn’t be shocked to see a 5% or more drop in carbon dioxide emissions this year, something not seen since the end of World War Two,” said Professor Jackson, of Stanford University in California.

It’s well-known that poor air quality is a killer - around three million people succumb to illness directly related to air pollution every year. It remains to be seen whether patients whose respiratory systems are compromised by high levels of pollution are particularly susceptible to coronavirus, but it is certainly something to consider.

Staying at home

Governments around the world have decided that our best defence against this disease is essentially to shut down much of modern civilisation as we know it. By staying at home, we’re not flying or driving, and many of the factories we usually rely on remain quiet. As a result, carbon emissions are down and we can all breathe more easily as a result.

Of course, the consequences are not all positive. Demand for crude oil in the US has plummeted, so has its pricing structure, and the industry supporting it. In the UK, the airline industry has requested a financial bailout to the tune of £7.5 billion, and almost every tourist destination faces a very uncertain holiday season this year.

Breathing space

Nevertheless, the planet has been given a chance to take a breath. This is as visible in the canals of Venice as the humble roadside verges around the UK. Councils are unable to follow their usual maintenance schedules, and the result may be a resurgence of wildflowers and insects.

Animals too have taken advantage of the quiet streets. Sightings of goats in Llandudno, puma in Santiago and wild boar in Barcelona have been reported as the wildlife tentatively sniffs its way back into areas usually out of bounds to them.

As humans, we’re creatures of habit. Many of us long to get back to normality, but some insist we take this opportunity to do better. For example, current experience may lead UK consumers to accept seasonal, homegrown produce and support local markets. As a result, local economy thrives and food miles stay low.

Unfortunately, we’re not great at learning from world events. The 2003 SARS outbreak created widespread panic, and resulted in a positive, but short-lived, impact on air pollution.  China’s recent experience follows the same pattern. At the height of the coronavirus outbreak, pollution levels reduced by 25% across the country but since the beginning of March, when lockdown eased, they have been creeping back up.

What next?

Economists are also concerned about the future. The UK treasury has shown that it intends to support growth and has set aside funding for startups and entrepreneurs. Surely there’s a case for taking this opportunity to actively back sustainable industry, infrastructure projects which involve renewables, and the adoption of improved transport habits.

The big question for the coming months and years will be whether we make the most of this hiatus – whether we are able to learn from world events and sustain whatever positives can be gleaned from this awful situation.