The Coronavirus Pandemic Proves That We Can Overcome the Climate Crisis—If We Want To
Por Martina Moneke *
Mar 14, 2020
One positive takeaway from the world’s response to the coronavirus epidemic is that it’s entirely possible to successfully combat two other existential and intertwined global crises: climate change and air pollution. But “possible” doesn’t mean “probable.”
The European Space Agency (ESA) has produced a remarkable new video using data gathered from their Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite, which specifically tracks atmospheric air pollution. The images reveal a sharp and sudden decrease in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over Italy from January to mid-February, which scientists believe is tied to the reduction in human activity in the nation due to the coronavirus outbreak. Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte ordered a lockdown across northern Italy on March 8 to try to contain the disease caused by the virus, COVID-19.
High concentrations of NO2, a highly reactive gas that forms from vehicle emissions and power plants, can harm the respiratory systems of humans and animals, aggravating respiratory diseases like asthma and increasing the risk of respiratory infection. NO2 can also reduce plant growth and even cause acid rain.
“Although there could be slight variations in the data due to cloud cover and changing weather, we are very confident that the reduction in emissions that we can see coincides with the lockdown in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities,” said Claus Zehner, the mission’s manager at ESA, in a statement.
This discovery comes on the heels of a similar one made by ESA’s Sentinel-5P and NASA’s Aura satellite, both of which detected significant drops in China’s atmospheric NO2 over a similar period when the Chinese government ordered a quarantine across the country in an effort to halt the spread of coronavirus.
“This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event,” said Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
In fact, putting the brakes on China’s economy to contain the virus has prevented 200 megatons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, according to analysis from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, which represents a remarkable 25 percent reduction in the nation’s emissions.
These realities reveal that it is possible for nations to significantly reduce vehicular and power plant emissions, which would result in better air quality and a lessening of other global warming gases, specifically carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is the primary driver of climate change. Of course, that would also mean a reduction in productivity, which would impact the economy.
But it also suggests the possibility of a fascinating scenario, one in which society decouples growth from gross domestic product (GDP). The common “wisdom” is that economic growth is tied to growth in production. But this setup, which puts serious pressure on environmental and climatic health, mainly through the emission of atmospheric pollutants, has brought society to an existential crisis far more dangerous than the coronavirus pandemic: climate change.
In 2011, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) panel warned that by 2050, humanity could ply through a staggering 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year—three times our current appetite—unless government moved to decouple the rates of economic growth from natural resource consumption. “People believe that environmental ‘bads’ are the price we must pay for economic ‘goods’,” said UNEP executive director Achim Steiner. “However, we cannot and need not continue to act as if this trade-off is inevitable.”
But will governments mandate that millions of vehicles be taken off the roads, even for a short period of time, to give the climate a badly needed break from emissions? It’s highly unlikely since we don’t treat the climate crisis with the same urgency as we have done with the coronavirus pandemic.
Part of it may be the fact that the mainstream media doesn’t give nearly enough attention to the climate crisis, while the coronavirus pandemic gets 24/7 coverage. Last year, major network news broadcasts aired a mere 238 minutes of climate crisis coverage—comprising just 0.7 percent of overall nightly broadcasts and the Sunday morning news shows, according to a recent Media Matters study.
“Americans are seeing coverage of the virus across multiple media platforms in a consistent manner, which is bringing awareness and driving public concern,” write Monica Medina and Miro Korenha of Our Daily Planet. “On the other hand, you’ve probably seen very little coverage that [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] predicts this year’s flooding in the Midwest could rival last year’s catastrophic floods that claimed lives and also helped spread disease to livestock and people.”
Some experts say that nations may even ramp up their economic activity to a higher point than before the epidemic broke out. “When the Chinese economy does recover, they are likely to see an increase in emissions in the short term to sort of make up for lost time, in terms of production,” said climatologist Zeke Hausfather, the director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, which supports climate action.
The failures of governments have been exposed by the coronavirus outbreak, from the failure of the American healthcare system to the failure of China to clamp down on the illegal wildlife trade, which was the source of coronavirus. But being wrong can often lead to being right. As Benjamin Disraeli, a Victoria-era prime minister of the United Kingdom, once observed, “All my successes have been built on my failures.” It’s probable that improvements to public healthcare will happen in the wake of the pandemic. And last month, in response to the outbreak, China permanently shut down its $74-billion wildlife-farming industry.
Hopefully, for the sake of the planet and for future generations, today’s leaders will realize that the biggest failure revealed by the coronavirus pandemic is their tragically ineffectual response to the climate crisis—and then turn it into a success.
* Martina Moneke is a freelance writer based in New York City.