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A Cleaner Environment Thanks to COVID-19–Will It Last?

When I heard that the earth was healing itself as whole cities were going into lockdown and people stopped travelling, it didn’t seem real: nitrogen dioxide pollution down thirty percent in northeast America, air pollution down fifty-four percent in Paris, and smog-less streets in India, all parts of a utopian dream in my mind. The best part? All of these changes occurred just in time for the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day! But will these positive changes see the light of Earth Day 2021? Kimberly Nicholas, Lund University sustainability researcher, does not have a clear prediction in Martha Henrique’s article “Will Covid-19 have a lasting impact on the environment?” of BBC Future.

While people may rush out to go on trips and travel the country to visit family and friends once quarantines are lifted, the miles “left untraveled” for things like work commutes will not add back on to the emissions total since no one will be doubling their commute to “make up” the miles lost. This is where there is the question of what outcome will outweigh the other, but Nicholas hopes that this time spent with our loved ones will change people’s perspectives to value time spent with family and friends more, leaving a lasting impression—and habit—to stay close to home.

There is promise in lowered emissions at least for the time that the pandemic lasts, as many other crises have brought about lowered carbon dioxide levels in the air, including the Bubonic Plague and the outbreak of smallpox first arriving in South America, according to University of Munich professor Julia Pongratz’s research. But these decreases were seen due to the excessive deaths and abandoned land caused by the epidemics, which is not quite comparable to what we are seeing now. The COVID-19 pandemic is more similar to the 2008 housing crisis, where the world saw a whole one-point-three percent decrease in global emissions over the year. Another factor of this question is how long the pandemic lasts—lost wages may determine consumer spending and influence how fiercely these emissions come back. Finally, something else to consider is what other habits people pick up during this time of remission: a 2018 study showed that people who were unable to drive their cars but provided with free electric bikes drove their car less even after it was returned to them. Perhaps new hobbies such as hiking, jogging, and cycling will increase after these lockdowns and a new, greener culture will form. Either way, new hobbies or not, emissions are predicted to decrease this year by at least zero-point-three percent so far and anything is better than nothing. It is unfortunate that a global emergency had to occur to see these changes, but perhaps one good thing we can take from the mess that is 2020 is what we have learned about how well people can come together to make a difference and that our environment truly needs help because it was sick long before us. 

Before-and-after images show how air pollution levels have dropped around the world amid COVID-19 lockdowns. (2020, April 22). Retrieved from https://q13fox.com/2020/04/22/before-and-after-images-show-how-air-pollution-levels-have-dropped-around-the-world-amid-covid-19-lockdowns/

Henriques, M. (2020, March 27). Will Covid-19 have a lasting impact on the environment? Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200326-covid-19-the-impact-of-coronavirus-on-the-environment

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