The coronavirus is disrupting almost every country in the world. Pandemics have struck before, but this one is affecting nations and citizens in new ways. Many countries, including the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and United States are implementing quarantines, lockdowns and social distancing measures to try and slow the spread of the virus.
As COVID-19 shuts down economies and overwhelms healthcare systems, people look for a silver lining or any form of hope they can get. One positive outcome of the situation is the reduction in pollution across the world.
The negatives are anxiety-inducing and frightening. People must stay inside or risk exposing themselves to a virus that has already claimed the lives of over 59,000 people. When people consider the reduction in pollution from country to country, they are looking toward hope for the environment. The benefits of this decline could be a gateway to a more environmentally friendly future.
Quarantines around the world
The spread of COVID-19 varies from country to country, and the degree of lockdown does as well.
Social distancing refers to slowing down the spread of the pandemic by decreasing socialization and reducing physical contact with others. This measure becomes necessary in the initial few days after the virus reaches a country. The U.S. encouraged social distancing once the coronavirus became prevalent and is still doing so.
Quarantines can be either self-mandated or government-mandated. Those in quarantine may or may not show symptoms of the virus after being exposed to someone who does. These signs typically appear within two to 14 days.
Isolation refers to the patients who are infected with the coronavirus and must remain separate from everyone who isn’t a healthcare provider. A lockdown entails that the local, state or federal government has mandated that everyone stay home to some degree. Lockdowns are currently happening across many countries including Spain, U.S. and Italy — and they’re beginning to end in China.
Social distancing won’t necessarily lessen the population that’s out and about. Thus, pollution levels will remain high. But as experts have seen with quarantines and lockdowns, the broader mandates and restrictions have significant impacts on pollution across the world.
Pollution levels decreasing
The coronavirus began in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. As the virus spread quickly throughout the city, the Chinese government decided to take aggressive action to eradicate the disease and slow the spread. After authorities locked down the town, ecological experts saw an environmental benefit. Lauri Myllyvirta, from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Finland, discussed the outcomes in his study.
He explains how that area of China saw a 25% drop in CO2 emissions over four weeks, starting in January. Additionally, there was a range of a 15% to 40% decrease in industrial sector output. Further, coal consumption dropped by 36%. As manufacturing rates and emissions decreased throughout the weeks, the air began to clear up quickly.
Images from NASA showed drastic reductions from January through the end of February, comparing 2020 satellite images with ones from 2019. China typically sees decreases in emissions during the Chinese New Year since businesses close for the holiday. But COVID-19 shut down enough cities and companies to yield more dramatic results.
As the coronavirus spreads across the world, it affects each country and its pollution levels. The pandemic has hit Italy, for instance, harder than many countries. The Italian government locked down the country after the virus’s exponential growth in an attempt to quarantine everyone. Residents soon saw the environmental effects of the pandemic.
Italy is famous for its waterways and gondolas. This water is frequently murky making visibility poor. However, the water is clearer than it has been in years due to the quarantine. The lack of boat traffic allows the sediment to rest at the bottom of these water features. While water contamination may not have necessarily decreased, it’s more likely that air pollution has gone down.
As people remain inside, manufacturing across Italy decreases — as does the resulting pollution from industrial and individual causes. Italy will likely see a similar proportional reduction in pollution as China. Nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere over Italy is already dropping.
The pandemic continues to spread, though, and is now growing exponentially in the United States, with New York, New Jersey and California recording the most cases so far. And already, those regions are seeing the unintended environmental benefits of the coronavirus. In San Francisco, residents are in a state of “shelter-in-place.” The city has already seen an almost 40% drop in particulate matter — tiny particles in the air that can be harmful to human health.
Pollution is also decreasing in New York City due to its current quarantine. The lack of production and traffic is reducing all harmful emissions. Across the country, other cities and states — including Los Angeles and Seattle — are seeing the same results. As more locations enforce quarantines, pollution will continue decreasing.
What will happen next?
Answers surrounding COVID-19 are still murky. Many experts are giving date ranges of when this pandemic could end and percentages of how many people it will affect. But one thing seems clear from the quarantines’ direct relationship to pollution levels — drastic climate action is attainable.
First and foremost, a reduction in air pollution benefits those who are infected with the virus. Since COVID-19 is a respiratory infection, the lungs become vulnerable, and air pollution worsens those symptoms. The drop in contaminated air will help in terms of vulnerability.
In the long run, however, a decrease in harmful emissions is what the environment needs — and soon. Some experts believe that changing emissions and energy sources by 2030 will help. Others believe 10 years is too long to wait. The Earth needs immediate attention, and the one beneficial consequence of this pandemic is that it shows the world how harmful emissions are and how quickly we can halt them. If society were to approach climate change like it would a pandemic, drastic action could happen. From there, planet Earth would witness an incredible transformation.
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Feature image of average nitrogen dioxide concentrations dropping after the Italian government placed the country under lockdown. Image: European Space Agency.