Shutting down for the environment

Tessa Augsberger

Although the global shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc in humans’ daily lives, it has also affected our environment in various ways.

Just two months ago, Angelenos lined up in their cars on the 101 Freeway as they headed to work. As they sat worrying about whether or not they would arrive on time, they may have heard planes pass overhead or looked out the window to see local factories pumping smog into the air. If they opened a window, they may have tasted the exhaust from the surrounding cars. Now, however, Angelenos’ mornings look very different than before.

Since Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered Angelenos to shelter-in-place, most residents hardly leave their homes, only getting in their cars for essential outings such as grocery shopping or picking up prescriptions. Instead of inhaling the ever-present smog on freeways and listening to the droning hum of planes above them, they wake up to birds chirping.

This new reality for urban residents is not limited to Los Angeles. The shutdowns resulting from the spread of COVID-19 are experienced by people all around the world, altering humans’ daily lives and the physical environment, too. Although the coronavirus pandemic has caused both personal and economic hardships globally, it has led to unexpected benefits for the natural world.

Air pollution levels in major cities around the world have plummeted. Because fewer people are using various modes of transportation such as cars, planes and trains, cities are producing lower levels of pollution. While some improvement in air quality may be due to certain weather patterns, satellite observations show that levels of nitrogen dioxide—which is not a greenhouse gas, but results from fossil fuel emissions and contributes to the formation of tropospheric, or ground-level, ozone, which can cause cardiopulmonary diseases—have declined in areas of China and northern Italy since the pandemic broke out in January, according to Nature, a British scientific journal. Los Angeles experienced the most consecutive days of clean air in March since at least 1980, according to the Los Angeles Times. Moreover, daily global carbon dioxide emissions declined by 17 percent in early April, according to a study published by Nature Climate Change Tuesday. Unfortunately, air pollution is expected to reach normal levels once the coronavirus shutdown ends.

As human activity has slowed to a halt in many places around the world, many wild animals have changed their habits as well. Some have even ventured into cities. For example, coyotes have been trotting around in San Francisco, while Nubian ibexes have been spotted roaming the coast of Eilat, Israel. In contrast, some animals face new dangers in the face of the global shutdown. Macaque monkeys in Lopburi, Thailand and deer from Nara Park, Japan, which all rely on visitors for food, have struggled to feed themselves as tourism slows. As animals begin to roam city streets, they are also increasingly exposed to various dangers inherent in urban areas, according to the New York Times.

At the same time, some endangered animal species are thriving in the midst of the shutdown. With beaches deserted, leatherback sea turtles, considered endangered in Thailand, have built the largest number of nests in Thailand in twenty years since last November, according to the World Economic Forum.

Although environmental effects of the global economy’s COVID-19 shutdown are positive, an international lockdown is certainly not the way to go about combating climate change. However, the coronavirus pandemic has implications for climate change, as well. First, even though climate change has not been proven to affect the spread of the coronavirus, factors leading to climate change such as habitat loss through deforestation, increase risks associated with infectious diseases, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Second, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted issues of environmental injustice around the world. Lower-income populations, communities of color and people with chronic respiratory diseases are most vulnerable to coronavirus and climate change, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Areas with higher levels of air pollution have higher death rates from COVID-19, and the aforementioned communities are disproportionately exposed to air pollution.

Perhaps most significantly, the effects of the coronavirus on the environment have given rise to new perspectives regarding how to address the climate crisis. According to BBC Future, interventions in human habits are more effective during times of change. For instance, it is possible that humans’ new lifestyle of limited travel will lead to tendencies to travel less in the future, a result that could extend past the short-term improvement in air quality and beyond the shutdown. Additionally, as people remain stuck at home with nothing to do, perhaps they will reevaluate their choices and begin implementing eco-friendly practices.

Urgency drives change. The coronavirus pandemic has already shown people what it is like to have their daily lives upended by external circumstances. Hopefully, we will allow these trying times to inform our international response to climate change before 2030, when the future of our planet is no longer in our hands and it is too late.