While the coronavirus is still the most pressing priority for state and federal governments, the response to the pandemic, quick implementation of restrictions and reopening guidelines prove that if the need is dire enough, countries have the capacity to work together to bring about drastic change.
Over the past several months, social media feeds have been rife with visual evidence of the lockdown’s environmental relief. While some of the photos were exaggerated and the caption “the Earth is healing, we are the virus” became a comedic catchphrase, the principle itself holds true. As the economy shut down and people worked from home, levels of particulate emissions decreased drastically, and the environment healed itself — albeit temporarily.
The stay-at-home orders have been an unprecedented experiment in global emissions reduction. Around the world, people are experiencing cleaner air and clearer skies. Notably, in India, home to some of the most hazardous air pollution and toxic particulate emissions on the planet, NASA recorded the lowest atmospheric aerosol levels in 20 years, and people in northern villages reported seeing the Himalayas for the first time in decades.
Back at University Park Campus, clear views of downtown Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Mountains were regularly visible during March and April as traffic decreased by one-third. The fresh air and clean skies were a preview of what one of the largest cities in the world might look like if California could pass the legislation to have only zero-emission vehicles on the road.
As the world begins to reopen, the environmental impact of the end of society’s brief slumber is immediately noticeable. Cars are reclogging the roads, and freeways are filling up with commuters returning to their now-social-distancing-approved workspaces; greenhouse gas emissions have begun to cloud the landscape once again as a smoggy haze descends back over the downtown skyline.
The clear skies and clean air experienced during the stay-at-home order should be a wake-up call — while it simply is not realistic to halt the economy and bustle of everyday life, governments do have the means to invest in clean-air solutions and take a stronger stance on developing strategies to mitigate climate change. While the decline of pollutants was temporary, the message it sent was clear: The pandemic has shown that governments and citizens have the capacity to incite global change if an issue is prioritized enough.
Air pollution isn’t only an environmental hazard but also a question of public health. Studies have shown that those living in industrial regions and areas of high levels of air pollution are at a greater risk for asthma and respiratory illnesses. It’s possible that the temporary respite from breathing unclean air could even be a factor in “flattening the curve” of illness.
Research conducted during the 2003 SARS outbreak found that death rates in the most heavily polluted areas of China were twice as high as those in regions with better air quality. People living in these areas of extremely toxic air quality are already at a greater risk for respiratory illness and consequently are one of the groups most vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus.
While the temporary air quality improvement this spring came at a heavy cost, the effects are reproducible with a lot of hard work and effective policy changes. When the economy reopens, particulate pollutant levels will likely return to or exceed pre-coronavirus measurements. That being said, the government is in a unique position to declare air pollution and toxic emissions health emergencies of their own and prioritize the development of commercial-grade green energy alternatives along with more sustainable assembly line processes. It will be a long, grueling and intensive process to create fiscally feasible alternatives to traditional energy industries, but the state of the environment has people’s attention right now. In a rapidly changing world, it’s the perfect opportunity to enact even more change in hope of yielding a permanent difference.
While restarting fossil fuel industries results in more immediate financial return, renewables are a more sustainable long-term investment, both in terms of steady financial gain and public health. The change will not occur overnight, but people around the world have had a taste of a future that is entirely within our grasp and need to continue to fight for long-lasting change. Slow, steady and strict implementation of regulations and tighter pollutant standards at a regional and statewide level are the key to reducing emissions locally. On a greater scale, governments should invest more money and attention into incentivizing fossil fuel-dependent industries to develop better technologies and mitigate the long-term effects of climate change.
As commerce slowly resumes and companies attempt to make up for revenue lost during the lockdown, the memory of clean skies and crisp air is still fresh in people’s minds. While the mind-numbing weeks of strict lockdown may almost be behind us, the virus has paved the way for a sliver of hope in the face of a steadily worsening climate emergency. There is no better time for environmental activism and action than the present.