Sustainability

How Is Coronavirus Impacting The Earth?

The widespread social distancing measures have led to improved air quality—but what happens when they are lifted?

Right: The India Gate seen during the lockdown to limit the coronavirus on April 20, 2020 in New Delhi, India. With vehicles off the road and industries shut due to the ongoing lockdown, the presence of some major pollutants has reduced by at least 50 per cent in Delhi NCR. // Left: The India Gate monument amid heavy smog in New Delhi on October 20, 2017, the day after the Diwali Festival. Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images // Dominique Faget/AFP via Getty Images

The social distancing measures implemented around the world to slow the spread of coronavirus have led to positive outcomes for some countries’ air quality—but many worry what will happen once more businesses start to open back up.

The stringent measures in China led to a drastic drop in CO2 emissions between early February and mid-March, according to climate website CarbonBrief. Another brief in early April said that 2020’s global emissions could fall 5% from last year’s levels. But climate scientists have warned that the emissions drop is temporary, and that lawmakers and consumers would have to make concerted efforts to truly make a difference.

“In terms of direct, physical impacts, yes we’re seeing a slowdown in some emissions,” University of Wisconsin-Madison climate scientist Andrea Dutton told National Geographic. “But of course, what really matters is cumulative emissions. If it’s short lived, it’s not really touching the tip of the iceberg.”

Response to the virus has also led to the diminishing of several environmental regulations in the U.S. At the end of March, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that the Trump administration relaxed enforcement of health and environmental regulations to help several polluting industries deal with the pandemic—a move the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council called a “license to pollute.” 

Still, some individual cities have passed measures that led to reduced daily emissions and more space for people to keep safe distances from each other. Boston, Minneapolis, and Oakland have closed sections of the cities to through traffic. The social distancing measures in New York City other major metropolitan areas in the northeast and the resulting reduced traffic levels, have significantly lowered pollution levels.

Some European Union leaders are arguing that countries must maintain focus on the environment, as they recover from the virus. The European Commission has said its Green Deal must be at the heart of an "intelligent recovery.

Some activists and journalists are also recognizing the unprecedented nature of the world’s response to the virus as a reason to spotlight environmental efforts.

“The Uninhabitable Earth,” author David Wallace-Wells argued in a piece for New York Magazine that the virus is a preview of what the world will endure as climate change worsens. Climate activist Bill McKibben also argues that passing meaningful environmental legislation may be “one of the best chances to make some positive use of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Though most people will have to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day without actually enjoying the great outdoors, museums, and organizations are scheduling special virtual resources for people to celebrate nature while staying inside.