Posted on: March 19, 2020 at 12:33 pm
Last updated: March 20, 2020 at 7:22 pm

Since the first cases were reported in China in December 2019, the novel coronavirus has swept across the entire globe, affecting every continent on Earth except Antarctica [1]. 

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The impact of the virus has been felt nearly everywhere- by individuals, families, and businesses small and large. The economic consequences of the vast number of global shut-downs, closed borders, and suspended travel cannot yet be fully understood, but so far have shown to be dramatic [2].

As with every negative situation, there is always a silver lining, and in the case of COVID-19, there has been one surprising beneficiary: the environment.

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With factories suspending operations, flights being grounded, and significantly less vehicle traffic on the roads as populations all over the world are being quarantined to their homes, the amount of CO2 emissions and general air pollution has been dramatically reduced.

Read: ‘Don’t panic’ says US woman who recovered from coronavirus

Rivers Running Clear in Venice

Italy, one of the countries outside of China that has been hit the hardest by the coronavirus, has entered into a state of complete lock-down. 

As a result, the waterways of Venice, which are usually crowded with boats carrying tourists and locals alike, have remained empty. During this time, locals have begun to notice that the water in the canals has become much clearer, and they can even see small fish swimming beneath the surface.

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Many people have been uploading photos of the clear water, remarking on how beautiful it was, and referring to it as “a spot of light during the darkness of the pandemic” [3].

A spokesperson from the Venice mayor’s office explained that the change in the water is not actually due to a decrease in pollution levels, but from the lack of traffic on the water.

“The water now looks clearer because there is less traffic on the canals, allowing the sediment to stay at the bottom,” they said. “It’s because there is less boat traffic that usually brings sediment to the top of the water’s surface.” [3]

While water pollution may not have drastically changed, there has been an improvement in the air quality over the city. The lack of tourism and restricted movement of residents has decreased the amount of boat traffic, and therefore the number of emissions being released into the atmosphere [3].

Pollution Over China Vanishes

What has been perhaps even more dramatic than the rivers in Venice, has been the dramatic decrease in air pollution over China. Since the country has been on lock-down, there has been a significant reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions, which are the emissions that come from vehicles, power plants, and industrial facilities [4].

Images from NASA showed the difference in the amount of air pollution over China from January to February, and the results are shocking. The clouds of pollution you can see in the images from January have all but disappeared in those from February.

Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, has never seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a large area, but is not surprised considering the measures that have been put in place throughout that country [4].

The difference in the concentration of nitrogen dioxide is revealed in two maps released by the space agencies. Photo Credit: NASA

Air pollution levels over China have dropped by about one quarter over the last month, and nitrogen dioxide levels have dropped by nearly thirty percent [5].

While this drop is only a tiny fraction of China’s overall annual emissions, it is substantial in a worldwide context. China is the world’s biggest polluter, and is responsible for thirty percent of global CO2 emissions. The Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA)estimates that this drop is equivalent to two hundred million tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is more than half of the annual emissions released by the UK [4].

The main reason behind this drop in emissions was the dramatic reduction in China’s coal usage. China uses coal to produce nearly sixty percent of its energy, but with factories and other industrial buildings shut down during the outbreak, the country’s major coal-fired power stations have seen a 36 percent reduction in consumption over the month of February when compared to the same time frame last year [4].

Read: 20 Coronavirus Myths Busted

How Has this Benefitted Citizens’ Health?

Marshall Burke, an assistant professor at Stanford’s Department of Earth System Science, estimates that this improvement in air quality could have actually saved between 50 and 75 thousand people from a premature death [6].

“The reductions in air pollution in China caused by this economic disruption likely saved twenty times more lives in China than have currently been lost due to infection with the virus in that country,” he wrote [6].

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated seven million people die every year from air pollution, and one in every nine people breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants [7].

These deaths are most likely due to an increase in strokes, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections [7].

China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment reported that they saw a nearly 23 percent increase in the average number of “good air quality days” for the month of February. Based on scientific research on monthly mortality rates associated with an increase in air pollution, Burke estimates that the reduction in air pollution as a result from the coronavirus may have saved the lives of up to four thousand children under the age of five, and up to 73 thousand adults over the age of 70 in China [4].

“Does this mean pandemics are good for health? No,” he said. “Instead it means that the way our economies operate absent pandemics has massive hidden health costs, and it takes a pandemic to help see that.” [4]

Climate expert Lauren Sommer says that even this short-term drop in pollution could have positive benefits.

“A good example of that is the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing,” she explained. “To improve air quality during the games, government officials limited car traffic and they shut down factories. And researchers actually tracked people during that time period, and they saw improvements in cardiovascular health and lung health. They also found that babies whose mothers spent their third trimester during the Olympic Games were born with heavier birth weights.” [8]

“Revenge Pollution”

While this news is very encouraging during a very difficult time across the globe, many experts are concerned that these benefits will be negated once the threat of the coronavirus is over. China, whose economy was already hurting due to the U.S.-China trade war, will be solely focused on restarting, which could negatively impact the environment.

“There might be a round of economic stimulus which would inject cheap credits to heavy industries in China, and as a result of that we might see increasing pollutants and also carbon emissions in the second half of this year,” said Li Shuo, a senior climate policy adviser for Greenpeace East Asia [4].

According to Li, this bounce-back can sometimes reverse any overall drop in pollution. The president of China has stated that factories and workers will need to “ramp up activity” as soon as this crisis has passed to avoid any further economic downturn.

Many experts are hoping that China will have learned from past mistakes, such as the “airpocalypse” of 2012-2013.

Hope for a Cleaner Future

In recent years, China has made significant progress in cleaning up its air, and there was a significant reduction in pollution over the entire country from 2013 to 2017. Between 2017 and 2018, overall pollution levels decreased by ten percent across Chinese cities [4].

Patrick Fung, chairman of the Clean Air Network living in Hong Kong, hopes that this brief period of cleaner air will encourage people to push for more long-term changes. 

“If we want the children, the elderly, who could live healthily in Hong Kong, then we should think how to make business as usual change,” he said [4].

There has, of course, been an incredible human toll associated with this reduction in emissions, and by no means has this pandemic been good for human health, but it has proven to be a stark reminder of not only the impact human activity has on our environment, but also how quickly we can make a difference simply by changing our activities.

Several lessons will be taken from this global pandemic, and certainly the impact of human activity on our planet will be one of them. The question, however, is whether or not we will use this information to make positive changes, or if we will simply return to business as usual.

Keep Reading: Taking cues from the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, could sunlight and fresh air help manage the coronavirus outbreak?

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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