It is undeniable that the pandemic of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes the illness COVID-19, will leave a deep and indelible mark on humanity. But what about the rest of the planet? The forced or voluntary confinement of a large portion of the world’s population, together with the cessation of countless activities, has led to a softening of the human impact on the environment unprecedented in recent history. Although this idea has already generated the inevitable hoaxes, such as the fake news announcing the reappearance of dolphins and swans in the canals of Venice, the truth is that there are reasons to wonder whether we will notice an impact of the current crisis on the planet as a whole.
Emissions are down temporarily, but total pollution is still growing
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of containment measures, a lot of eyes have been fixed on the change in air pollution levels on the planet. In February, NASA and ESA released earth observation images showing a dramatic decrease in nitrogen dioxide pollution in the skies above China as a result of reductions in transport and industry. According to the British website Carbon Brief, in February CO2 emissions in China were down by a quarter during the four weeks following the Chinese New Year. However, the gradual return to normalcy is reducing these emissions savings, and analysts fear that the subsequent rise in industrial activity will completely offset the effect.
As responses to the pandemic have led to confinement of the population and the shutdown of industry around the globe, emissions have fallen in other countries. Carbon Brief predicts that the coronavirus will cause the largest drop in global CO2 emissions on record, with an estimated cut of 2,000 megatonnes, or 5.5% of the 2019 total. But it warns that the level of atmospheric CO2 continues to rise, and that we will still fall far short of the goal of keeping global temperature increases below 1.5°C if we do not cut emissions by at least 6% each year this decade.
Drops in emissions can save lives
Although the temporary cut in emissions is a mere drop in a vast ocean, even this effect can be beneficial to the health of many people. The World Health Organization estimates that each year air pollution kills 7 million people worldwide, through cardiovascular disease, stroke, lung cancer, obstructive pulmonary disease or respiratory infections. Therefore, even a temporary reduction in emissions can ease the burden of deaths due to this factor.
Some have even crunched the numbers. According to the most conservative estimate by Stanford University professor Marshall Burke, the improvement in air quality in China associated with the pandemic has been able to save 20 times more lives in two months than have succumbed to the coronavirus, preventing the deaths of 1,400 children under the age of five and 51,700 adults over the age of 70. While this is a calculation presented in a blog and not a published scientific study, Burke wanted to use it as a wake-up call: “[This] does not mean pandemics are good, but rather that our economies absent pandemics are bad for health.”
Fauna reconquers human habitats
Dolphins haven’t colonised Venice and elephants aren’t roaming around and getting drunk in Chinese villages. However, leaving aside the eagerness of some users of social networks to attract the attention of others by inventing fake news, the truth is that there are anecdotal, but true, observations of fauna reconquering the now empty human spaces: monkeys in Thailand, deer in Japan, wild turkeys in California, raccoons in Panama and even a puma in Santiago, Chile.
The phenomenon is a small-scale replica of what happened in Chernobyl and Fukushima, places abandoned by humans because of radioactive contamination and which have become valuable sanctuaries for wildlife in their own right. And while the unusual sightings of animals in cities due to the coronavirus crisis are likely to disappear with the end of the confinements, experts see the possibility of more long-term effects if, for example, wildlife crosses the now deserted roads to colonise new areas.
Less background noise, more sensitivity to detect earthquakes
One of the almost unexpected effects of the confinements is being noticed by geophysicists, the scientists who study terrestrial phenomena such as seismic movements. As reported in Nature, some seismologists have already noticed that their detection devices located on the surface and in large population areas have recorded a drop of at least one third in the background noise they usually collect, which is caused by factors such as transport and industry.
As Thomas Lecocq of the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels explained, a silence like this is normally only observed on Christmas Day. Other observatories have also recorded less background noise, which would allow weaker earthquakes to be detected and volcanic activity to be monitored more accurately. Although this is obviously a transitory effect that will disappear when the world returns to normal, at least during this period surface seismic detectors will reach a sensitivity comparable to those buried at great depths.
Stricter laws on the conservation and trafficking of species?
Given the expected transience of almost all the above-mentioned impacts, if a more lasting benefit could be obtained from this immense human tragedy it would not be through our inaction, but rather the opposite, through definitive action against urgent problems. For years and years, countless experts have warned that the destruction of natural ecosystems and the trade in wildlife are not only a threat to biodiversity, a key factor in the health of our planet, but also to our own health. COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, like many others before it, and new viruses will continue to jump from animals to humans if we do learn to live more harmoniously with the natural environment.
The coronavirus pandemic has prompted the Chinese authorities to introduce more restrictive rules on the trade and consumption of wildlife. The city of Shenzhen has issued a permanent ban, but the general measures taken in the country have been criticised by some Chinese scientists, given that, for example, medicinal uses will continue to be legal. As professor Simon Evans at Anglia Ruskin University wrote in The Conversation: “There will be few positives to take from coronavirus. But the global pandemic may yet prove to be an important moment in the attempts to address the illegal wildlife trade.” This is even more urgent given the risk, expressed by various experts, that the fall in tourism revenues due to the pandemic in regions such as the African continent will encourage local communities to intensify poaching as a means of survival.
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