Coronavirus and Climate Change? It’s Complicated

Clean air is flowing across the planet, but environmentalists aren’t celebrating yet

Yasmin Tayag
Medium Coronavirus Blog
2 min readApr 8, 2020

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As the coronavirus brings life to a standstill in cities under strict lockdown, a once-familiar sight is making a welcome return: Clear blue skies, together with fresh air and the melodies of birdsong.

The surreal juxtaposition of nature’s wrath and beauty is perhaps most poignant in India, home to 14 of the 20 cities in the world with the most hazardous air and currently under complete lockdown. The New York Times reports that New Delhi measured an air quality index of 38 last week; citizens there are used to a standard of about 150. (According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a “good” AQI falls between 0 and 50.) Sick people say they are using their inhalers less, and Venus can be seen in the night sky.

Similar patterns have been observed in the U.K., where levels of the harmful pollutant nitrogen dioxide have dropped up to 60% compared to the same period last year, reports the BBC. These reductions are being chalked up to the decrease in traffic on once-busy roadways. The same goes for parts of the United States, China, and Italy. As early as February, scientists with NASA’s Earth Observatory noted a dip in nitrogen dioxide, first over Wuhan, then the rest of the country.

It’s heartening to imagine what possibilities collective action holds for climate change, but today’s clear skies come with a steep cost: an economic crisis that’s left millions without jobs. When cities reopen, the challenge we’ll all face is figuring out how to maintain the positive effects of lockdown on pollution while rebuilding a healthy economy.

The scientists that NBC News spoke to are not getting their hopes up too high. They’re worried that industries and the governments that regulate them will be especially lax about environmental laws once they get the green light to resume operations. Economies will need stimulus packages, but if China’s response to the 2008 financial crisis is any indication as to how those will be rolled out, the environment will suffer: One analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air described as it as the “biggest, dirtiest stimulus program in the history of mankind.”

But maybe Covid-19 is what it’ll take for us to finally start looking at the planet differently. In another piece from the Times, about life in Wuhan as it attempts to regain normalcy, at least one resident is seeing her city in a new light: “The grass looks greener, the trees more luxuriant. There even seem to be more little songbirds in the garden outside her apartment.”

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Yasmin Tayag
Medium Coronavirus Blog

Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.