Nature is still our greatest ally 

click to enlarge NASA SCREENSHOT
  • NASA screenshot

As we settle into this uneasy existence of life in the time of a pandemic, perhaps it is time to consider some of the unintended consequences we are seeing.

One of the most noticeable is the many fewer cars on the road. Along with this, we have the grounding of airlines and the slowing down of some industrial sectors, as populations globally have to stay isolated to try and break the chain in spreading COVID-19.

A funny meme going around social media suggested that Mother Earth was giving her kids a timeout in their rooms in the hopes of causing some self-reflection on the ongoing destruction of the environment we are causing.

While raising a smile, the image is also rather thought-provoking if you take a minute to consider the serious side of the message.

You will recall that before the global economy was stopped in its tracks by this coronavirus, a considerable number of the voting public had placed climate change at the top, or near the top, when it came to issues that needed to be addressed by leaders.

There were protest marches around the world drawing tens of thousands of people demanding action on this front.

It's hard to imagine that that was just a few weeks ago.

Then in the first few weeks of the global realization that COVID-19 is everyone's problem, some images began to surface quietly about what was happening to the planet as a result of people staying home and industrial and business operations ceasing.

It's only logical to think that there would be an impact on emissions of pollutants, but as people came to terms with the deaths and the devastation in COVID-19's wake, the small wins for the environment felt distasteful to acknowledge.

It still feels that way.

But connected to this drop in CO2 emissions in some parts of the world are lingering questions about lessons that might be drawn from the world's response to the pandemic and how some of it might be transferable to the climate-change fight.

After all, we have seen extreme and rapid responses by nations that lead the world. Could we not expect to see this same type of behaviour to save the planet?

Sadly, Jason Bordoff, a former senior director on the staff of the U.S. National Security Council and special assistant to President Barack Obama says no in this week's Foreign Policy magazine.

"COVID-19 may deliver some short-term climate benefits by curbing energy use, or even longer-term benefits if economic stimulus is linked to climate goals—or if people get used to telecommuting and thus use less oil in the future," he wrote.

"Yet any climate benefits from the COVID-19 crisis are likely to be fleeting and negligible. Rather, the pandemic is a reminder of just how wicked a problem climate change is because it requires collective action, public understanding and buy-in, and decarbonizing the energy mix while supporting economic growth and energy use around the world."

Still, it was amazing to see that in just five days this month, San Francisco saw a 40-per-cent decrease in particulate matter levels compared to last year's levels at this time—a result of the city's shelter-in-place order to control the virus. New York City saw a 28-per-cent drop over the same period of time, and Seattle saw a 32-per-cent decrease.

From Feb. 3 to March 1, CO2 emissions were down from 2019 by at least 25 per cent in China because of the measures to contain the coronavirus, according to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), an air pollution research organization. 

As the world's biggest polluter, China contributes 30 per cent of the world's CO2 emissions annually, so the impact of this kind of drop is huge, even over a short period. CREA estimates it is equivalent to 200 million tons of carbon dioxide—more than half the entire annual emissions output of the U.K.

Every little bit helps, but as the powerhouse that is China ramps up its manufacturing and coal-fire plants once again, we must all consider what is the take away from what we are seeing.

"At the end of the day, [with] all of these events, nature is sending us a message," UN's environment chief, Inger Andersen, said last week.

She went on to point out that the world's wild spaces are being eroded and that this is increasing the risk of more COVID-19-type pandemics

"Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people," she told the Guardian, explaining that 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife.

"We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don't take care of nature, we can't take care of ourselves. And as we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we need to go into this future armed with nature as our strongest ally."

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