Valérie Dufort-Roy | Klish Way
Clear canals in Venice, blue skies above Los Angeles, Himalayas visible from northern India… Is social distancing and the resulting lockdown of entire countries sufficient to shave off a few degrees, reverse climate change and return to a healthier planet? The closest historical event affecting global carbon gas emission was the 2008-2009 recession resulting in a 1.3% reduction. However, when the economy ramped up, so did the damaging emissions.
Satellite observations (from the Copernicus Sentinel-5 Precursor’s mission monitoring the atmosphere) unequivocally showed a significant drop in nitrogen dioxide over China and several European countries, with a slow increase over China from mid-March, when the country re-opened. Nitrogen dioxide, a polluting substance, is generated by power plants, industrial facilities and vehicles. It is linked to respiratory illnesses. In the US, air traffic showed a 22% decline in March. San Diego recorded a vehicle traffic dropped of 80% from March 19th, with a 20-30% drop in oxides of nitrogen in Chula Vista and El Cajon, during peak hours.
The World Health Organization measures that outdoor air pollution kills 4.2 million people annually, worldwide. Over 80% of people living in large cities are exposed to air quality levels containing pollutants in excess of the WHO guidelines. A recent Harvard study recorded that a small increase in long-term exposure to fine particulate matter leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate. Hence, populations already exposed to high levels of fine particulate matter might not benefit from the decrease currently experienced.
Another consideration, as we marvel at the blue skies, is the EPA announcement of a blanket policy indefinitely suspending enforcement of regulations and fines for businesses claiming that COVID-19 is affecting their ability to comply with environmental laws.
How does one understand this cauldron of perplexing news? Sure, the skies are bluer. The air feels healthier. We can speculate for a lasting advancement against global warming, should the lockdown stretch through 2020. When our lives limp back to normal, there will still be a need for tougher air pollution and climate policies to maintain the improvements we temporarily embrace. We are seeing with our own eyes and lungs what can be done by controlling emissions from power plants, industrial facilities and vehicles. The planet’s ability, given the will, to reverse climate change is no longer a theoretical question. It may be one of the scant silver linings of the times we’re living through.