Unprecedented times. Uncharted waters. Unknown territory. We’ve all heard these phrases a lot over the last couple of weeks, and life doesn’t look like going back to normal just yet.
However, in amongst the daily briefings and new normal of self-isolation and social distancing there have been some positive stories too – from wildlife roaming deserted city streets to a huge cut in emissions and air pollution as a result of the slow-down of human activity.
It will come as no surprise to many but, if you take human activity out of the equation, nature bounces back pretty rapidly. As we adjust to life under the COVID-19 lockdown, our towns and cities have been left deserted. Roads are eerily empty. Factories and offices which were once hives of activity have gone dormant, awaiting the return of their workforces. And, while we sequester ourselves away from this pandemic, our planet is in recovery.
Emissions fall considerably
China, the initial epicentre of the outbreak was the first to enforce a lockdown on its citizens to slow the spread of the virus, and in February it was reported by Carbon Brief that the reduction in activity had already slashed the country’s CO2 emissions by a quarter.
And it’s not just CO2 emissions. As the pandemic has spread and more countries have taken action to protect their citizens, the drop in human activity has led to a huge reduction in air pollution from the halting of travel and manufacturing. In places like Milan and other parts of northern Italy, nitrogen dioxide levels in the air fell by around 40% and other countries around the world have also experienced drastic cuts to air pollution as shown vividly in this article from The Guardian.
Wildlife reclaims the streets
Social media has been flooded with stories of animals returning to areas once dominated by humans. The canals of Venice are clear once more, with no gondolas to stir up the sediment. Swans, fish and other birdlife have been seen there in abundance and on the coast of Sardinia, Dolphins were seen playing by the harbour wall. Wildlife that is usually contained to rural areas around cities has also been taking advantage of the lack of humans. In Nara (Japan) deer have been seen freely roaming the empty streets and in southern Italy even wild boars have made an appearance.
Life after Coronavirus
The reality is that a lot of these changes may only be temporary – unless we learn lessons and impose some changes on the way we live our lives. The Paris Climate agreement set out targets to keep global temperature increases to just 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Right now, with manufacturing put on hold and billions of cars off the roads, we are living that 1.5 degree carbon lifestyle.
If we can learn from this experience, and put in place tangible measures to maintain this positive trajectory for our climate, there is hope that this could be the event that tips the balance in favour of a collaborative sustainable agenda for the whole global community. But this pandemic can also be seen as a warning. The more we encroach on habitats and bring ourselves into closer contact with wildlife, the more we risk another global event like this pandemic.
One thing we are quickly learning is that government policies, implemented and enforced on a global scale, do work. And they work quickly. If we can learn from this outbreak, from the impacts on our climate to our economy, the future could be much brighter.
All that’s left to be seen is whether we do.
Words by Zak Rayment