The coronavirus is altering the air we breathe, in many parts of the world. According to Carbon Brief, China’s carbon dioxide emissions were down 25% for four weeks starting February 3rd, and NO2 (a pollutant associated with fossil-fuel burning) levels were 36% lower than they had been in previous years. IQAir, a global air quality information company, studied ten major cities and found that seven of them have seen significant improvements in air quality. In cities like New Dehli, smog has lessened for the first time in years. Residents of elderly homes are using inhalers less and seeing relief in respiratory issues(unrelated to COVID-19). In an unexpected way, we are getting a glimpse of what a low-carbon and low-fossil fuel world might look like. And that world is one we need right now. Aside from the urgency of the climate crisis, increased pollution has been linked to a higher risk of death from COVID-19.
The change has not been all positive, however. In the United States, the EPA is loosening restrictions on polluters. Polluters can now “monitor themselves for an undetermined period of time”, according to the New York Times. A top official from the EPA has claimed that “will not issue fines for violations of certain air, water and hazardous-waste-reporting requirements”. It claims that it will inspect on a case-by-case basis and take the pandemic into account when it comes to violations. This move has received mixed responses, with the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council calling it “an open license to pollute”.
Whether or not the pandemic will have positive effects on pollution, it is a temporary situation. It will in no way reverse long-term damage to the environment, nor will it prevent a reversion to the same harmful practices once stay-at-home orders are lifted. On the other hand, the coronavirus reveals the non-permanence of the fossil-fuel industry. We may want to practice caution when returning to “business-as-usual”.
By Veronika Souzek