Images of blue skies and waterways, reports of goats taking to the streets in Wales, endangered sea turtles returning to empty beaches in Eastern India, macaque monkeys traversing through Lopburi, Thailand, and coyotes venturing into new areas of San Francisco have attracted media attention across the globe. As more than 1.5 billion people shelter in place and cease driving, air travel, and a lot of unnecessary consumption, wildlife is taking advantage of the break in normal human activities.
While COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on daily human lives, the pandemic is simultaneously giving the earth a much-needed respite from pollution and human activities. Researchers at Columbia University found that pollution fell more than 50 percent below typical levels in New York City within a week. NASA also reported that nitrogen dioxide pollution has been 40 percent lower in parts of northern Italy and 10-30 percent lower across eastern and central China.
In addition to negatively affecting wildlife, air pollution has proven to be a threat multiplier, making people more susceptible to respiratory illnesses, like COVID-19. According to a new nationwide study conducted by Harvard University, a person living in a county with high levels of pollution is 15 percent more likely to die from the coronavirus than someone in a region with just one unit less of the fine particulate pollution. During the SARS epidemic, an earlier coronavirus outbreak, scientists found that patients from regions with high air pollution were twice as likely to die compared to patients from regions with cleaner air. People of color, particularly Black Americans who tend to live in areas with higher pollution, are contracting and dying from COVID-19 at higher rates. And since the current coronavirus outbreak in China and the subsequent drop in pollution levels, between 50,000 and 75,000 people have been saved from premature deaths linked to pollution, according to CNN.
The long term impact of this crisis on the environment will depend on how countries choose to restimulate their economies. Some countries are taking advantage of the economic upheaval to reshape their economies to address pollution and the ever-looming climate crisis. The European Council views a carbon emission plan as a key element to stimulating sustainable economic recovery and is planning to include a green transition within the European Coronavirus Stimulus Package. At the same time, many Democratic lawmakers in the United States hope to attach greenhouse restrictions and more carbon regulations to a possible government bailout plan of the airline and cruise ship industries.
In an interview with the Urban Legend, Robert Root, MD, a local doctor working with the Climate Reality Project, said, “if governments say that they’re going to invest in renewables to revitalize the economy, we could use this terrible situation to make tremendous long term progress in the fight against climate change which is the ultimate threat to human health.”
In contrast to many European countries, however, the United States has responded to the pandemic by relaxing environmental standards. On March 26th, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it is weakening the environmental standards for large polluters in recognition that the “challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements.” The agency will not issue fines for violations of certain air, water, and hazardous-waste-reporting requirements and are simply requesting that companies “act responsibly” if they cannot meet the environmental standards.
Additionally, the plastics industry is capitalizing on fears of bacterial contamination by launching a “Bag the Ban” campaign against reusable bags and plastic bag bans that have gained traction across the US. However, according to the New York Times, a study that found coronavirus bacteria on reusable shopping bags was funded by the American Chemistry Council which represents major plastics and chemical manufacturers.
Across the country, lawmakers are responding to COVID-19 outbreaks with rollbacks of plastic bag bans. While San Francisco was the first U.S. city to institute a plastic bag ban in 2007, as of April 1, 2020, the city has banned reusable shopping bags. In New Hampshire, an emergency health order requires stores to use single-use paper or plastic shopping bags. In Massachusetts, lawmakers have temporarily banned the use of reusable shopping bags and mandated that stores do not charge for plastic or paper bags and in Maine, the state is suspending its plastic bag ban as well.
While the current health crisis is being used to promote disposability and single-use items as people run to the stores to buy bulk products in single-use plastic bags, for some individuals, the shelter-in-place orders have also forced them to reevaluate their consumption habits. Cassie Eng ‘21 said, “I feel like the coronavirus has made me realize that I don’t need to consume so much to really survive. I have stopped online shopping and I see that so much of what I bought before this forced social isolation is just incredibly unnecessary.”
The big unknown is whether these lessons will hold, even after the threat of COVID-19 has dissipated. This health crisis has shown that when people are truly scared, a vast reduction in pollution levels and a resurgence of wildlife is possible; the question is no longer whether or not we can, but rather, do we have the agency and unity to address the climate crisis?
Panayiota Theodosopoulos, an Urban science teacher, reminds us to “look at the risk of denial, avoidance, and delay. For COVID-19, the time frame is condensed while the climate crisis is playing out over a longer horizon, but there are many of the same issues of denial, avoidance, and delay that are underlying both these issues.”