The spread of Covid-19 is pressuring the human race to look at another global calamity: climate change.
More than 3,000 people are dead due to the spread of a coronavirus, known as 'Covid-19;' and it's being called a pandemic. When the Chinese government finally took the discovery seriously, it moved fast to build a make-shift hospital, quarantine swathes of the population and shut down economic production. But then came the pictures. The air overhead in Wuhan, China, was blue. The mist of dust and pollution dissipated. Brown and gold filters, erased. It was as if Mother Earth, herself wiped it clean.
Satellite imagery generated by NASA and the European Space Agency showed a significant reduction in Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) levels over the city, a drop estimated near 30 percent.
"That's something we did not expect," Dr Bryan Duncan told TRT World. He’s on the research team from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, which released the photos.
He explained,"Before the [Chinese] Lunar New Year, we saw air pollution levels where they normally are… and then after the Lunar New Year, from the historical record, satellite data, we expected the air pollution, to recover to normal levels, as people returned to work, but in this period, the air pollution levels continued to decrease, for about three weeks after. Witnessing...the reality of the images, it really brings it home how large and wide some of these events are."
And so it seems, the spread of Covid-19 is pressuring the human race to look at another global calamity: climate change.
Currently, the pollutants and chemicals in the air are eating away at our air quality. Heavy amounts of NO2 are emitted through fossil fuels and contribute to the rising heat of greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide. NO2 is not safe for humans to breathe in and damages the atmosphere. The World Health Organization (WHO) says: "Air pollution is the largest single environmental risk for health."
With the bombardment of energy production, particularly since the industrial revolution, the rise of emissions and gases has only intensified.
Dr Bradley Opdyke, an environmental and marine expert at Australian National University in Canberra told TRT World he hopes it will be a wake up call. "I think the reason the coronavirus has hit the Chinese so hard is the fact that their air quality for the past two, three decades has been horrible and it really does leave you more susceptible to respiratory illness," he explained.
He analysed the "CO2 output from China dropping dramatically," their "oil consumption dropping dramatically" which he then believes will force their government to take a closer look at collective air quality and hopefully improve their environmental policies. Of course, that goes for other global leaders as well.
Since the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015, and according to an emissions report card released last year, global emissions increased 2.7 percent by 2018. Another report indicated that in order to achieve the Paris agreement’s goals by 2030 or 2050, each country should take action to reduce its pollutants by 2.7 percent per year.
The irony, in this moment, is NASA’s images provide the world with an opportunity to review its values, make immediate changes and shift the trajectory toward long term environmental recovery. New technology and social awareness have certainly created a demand for alternative energy. The satellite images reflected a small break from regular pollution attacks on the Earth's atmosphere.
But Duncan said we still have, “many miles to go”. He added: “Energy production is directly related to economic activity. Other countries are really beginning to industrialize, ..and their air pollution levels are going up quite rapidly.”
It’s important to mention that what happens above, happens below; this means, when the air quality is poor, it also affects our water systems and oceans. Dr Opdyke studies the degradation of Coral Reef systems and marine life. He explained when CO2 "mixes with water, it drops the pH [level]" of the ocean's surface.
He explained a result, this process known as "ocean acidification, reduces the coral's resilience and adaptability to the change in temperature. Once the temperature gets above a certain [point], what happens is the corals being animals, go into sort of crisis mode...Once those reefs die, it just becomes this pile of algal hard rubble."
Coral Reef is an essential part of our Earth's makeup. It's a protective lining near our shores in times of storm and flooding, a shelter for sea life, and one of the most biodiverse systems under water. It's destruction ravages both its beauty and functionality into war-zone like ruins.
Taking care of the air quality raises the quality of the waters, the land and food supply. So by reducing fossil fuels, and investing in alternative energy, slowing down and using modern technology, a myriad of strategies then contribute to long term improvements for the Earth’s conditions.
Maarten van Aalst, a Climate Center Director for the Red Cross in Netherlands said there is a desperate “strain on healthcare systems” as the virus spreads and to “decarbonise is a long term game”.
While he believes the “reduction of air pollution is not a very heavy factor in governmental decisions” to shut down economic production, he also knows there is room to consider creative solutions.
“If the decisions are made to reduce travel, for instance, then we should invest in ways to minimise the impact,” he explained.
He also suggested that investment in virtual meeting technology, for example, instead of air and jet travel is one immediate solution which could carry over after the virus is contained. “This is the time when everyone sees the immediate need to still have that meeting and not to fly,” he said.
Both Duncan and Opdyke also suggested the reduction in air travel is helpful in pollutant reduction. However, travel bans and decreases are temporary, and it’s only a byproduct of the disease’s containment.
So then, what about the systems of energy still leaning too far into fossil fuel production? These are systems which need to be eroded in favour of the alternative. It would be a radical change, but the Earth itself makes it evident drastic measures are necessary to improve conditions.
From implementing better fuel quality standards to massive investment in energies like water, wind and solar to banning fracking, and consistent water testing, to coal mining reductions, all of these are options government systems can adapt. And citizens can and should demand it of their politicians on both local levels and national.
Duncan said he does have hope because “we have seen such large decreases around the world," since the 1990s and now it’s an "exciting time for the capabilities and the quality of the data that we’re getting so we are able to monitor these activities more closely.” With that data, of course, it just might be possible to keep his hope alive.
It is vital to find solutions in order to contain Covid-19, and halt its spread to the best of our ability. But while we wait for more effective methods, it is also worth shifting our attention to Mother Earth’s call: "Slow down, breathe the air you're meant to breathe and heal me." Perhaps it's time we listen. The skies over Wuhan are clear, for now.