The Planet Comes Up For Air

The Planet Comes Up For Air

Doha, April 2020


The World Comes Up For Air


The impacts of the current global pandemic on the health sector, as well as, all major sectors of the economy have been devastating. Understandably, much of the world’s attention is rightly focused on the human toll of the virus, provision of required health facilities, and stimulating the recovery process for the battered economy. As the pandemic continues to take a toll on almost all sectors of the economy – manufacturing, financial, energy, travel, hospitality, retail, and service industry, etc; there are emerging signs that the measures been taking to curtail the spread of the virus are having some positive short-term impacts on the environment. While business activities have slowed dramatically and travels and daily commutes are put on hold in several parts of the world, the planet is experiencing some reprieve from significant human environmental footprints.


Satellite images and reports from around the world indicate that we are getting a glimpse into a world with reduced pollution. According to the European Space Agency data, air pollution over China is declining, with similar reductions in emissions also been observed over Europe, as a result of economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus. The Centre for International Climate Research in Oslo (CICERO) observed that air pollution over large parts of China was reduced by 20 to 30 percent in February/March, when compared to last year. Scientists at CICERO predict that, if air pollution levels remain this low for a longer-term period, 50,000 - 100,000 premature deaths could be avoided in China alone. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says air pollution kills about seven million people worldwide annually, putting into perspective the health benefit of the reductions in air pollution being observed currently.


In India, it is reported that the Himalayas can be seen for the first time in 'decades,' as the country’s lockdown eases air pollution. In the northern Indian state of Punjab, it is observed that the Himalayan mountain range can now be sighted from more than 100 miles away. The same story of reduced air pollution linked to lockdown measures, is playing out in Spain, Italy, USA, UK, and other countries and major cities. Scott Collis, an atmospheric scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, referred to studies that have shown a drop in pollutants like nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide, in New York, due to reduction in traffic. Compared with the same time last year, levels of pollution in New York have reduced by nearly 50% because of measures to contain the virus. According to IQAir, Los Angeles, which usually have the worst air quality in the USA, has turned into one of the cleanest, compared to other major cities, with the city enjoying its longest stretch of “good” air quality since 1995.


The ways the coronavirus is affecting animals around the world also highlight another side of the environmental gains from the pandemic. The linking of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan to wild animals, made the Chinese authorities to place a ban on eating wild animals. This measure, intended to halt the spread of the virus, could end up helping several endangered species, depending on how long the ban lasts. As an example, the total ban on the sale and consumption of the pangolin, may end up saving this most trafficked mammal on Earth. The international sale of the pangolin, listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) as threatened with extinction, was outlawed in 2016 under the CITES convention against species exploitation. However, it remained a traditional delicacy across China and much of southeast Asia, prized for its meat and its unique scales, which are said to have medicinal properties.


With numerous countries in lockdown and humans self-isolating in their homes, animals that usually stay away from urban areas now have space to roam. In cities and towns across the world, wildlife has been exploring the deserted streets. In the absence of disturbances from homo sapiens, some animals are returning to their natural habitats. Phuket, the most popular island in Thailand, has witnessed empty streets, beaches and coastlines, due to strict lockdown measures. Consequently, the Mai Khao Marine Turtle Foundation, has reported a 20-year high in the number of turtle nests on some beaches in the province of Phuket. Even penguins across the Antarctica are enjoying undisturbed freedom from nature explorers.


In South Africa, wild animals have also been making the most of the ongoing lockdown. In the popular Kruger National Park, lions were photographed sleeping on empty roads and wild dogs were seen playing on golf courses. In Barcelona, Spain, wild boars were spotted in the centre of the city as soon as the lockdown began. One of Australia's biggest cities, Adelaide, became so quiet that kangaroos were seen jumping through the deserted streets in the center of the city. The Sika deer, which normally live in Japan's Nara Park, have begun wandering in nearby cities, and in Wales, a herd of goats left their home in the Great Orme, to roam around the northern coastal town of Llandudno. Hedgehogs, toads, fish and bumblebees are among species enjoying a respite from humans in the UK, with hedgehogs particularly, enjoying relatively car free roads. Experts in UK believe that with fewer people out and about in the countryside walking their dogs, rare birds, especially those which build nests in the ground would experience less disturbance.


The actions that governments and the people are taking in response to the current crisis is undoubtedly having a positive impact on nature and mother earth. The only question is how long will these positive environmental side effects last, and what happens once the invisible enemy is defeated? Will humans seek to conserve nature, or quickly return to the old unsustainable living pattern and risk more future health and economic backlashes similar or worse than COVID-19.


Although it is still very early to see the full extent of how the Earth breathes and changes during this unprecedented time, there are hopeful signs, amid the crisis, that illustrate how quickly natural systems may be able to bounce back when human behavior changes.