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The Silver Lining: Coronavirus’ Positive Side Effect Paving the Way to a Cleaner Future

A piece written for the Public Journalism module. 05/05/2020

The Silver Lining: Coronavirus’ Positive Side Effect Paving the Way to a Cleaner Future

The coronavirus pandemic has shut down almost all industrial activity, grounded flights, and has forcefully reduced people’s need for their cars; all of which have drastically improved air pollution levels across the globe.

Could this be our future?

With coronavirus making headlines across the world for months, the devastation caused by the infection is clear to see. However, despite the atrocities of the pandemic, there is a silver lining: the effect it’s had on the environment and air quality.

Acting as the “largest-scale experiment ever seen”, according to Paul Monks, professor of air pollution at the University of Leicester, global lockdown is giving us a glimpse of what is possible for our planet – and what can be achieved if we deal with the climate crisis by ditching fossil fuels in the coronavirus recovery plan.

Air Quality News analysis suggests that since the beginning of lockdown, emissions have been cut by over 50%, with experts expecting carbon emissions to fall by 2.5bn tonnes – which would be the biggest drop on record. Monks has suggested that this is due to the lack of air travel and vehicle pollution. Road traffic typically accounts for approximately 80% of the UK’s nitrogen oxide emissions (NO2), and due to lockdown, each kilometre not driven avoids 52mg of pollutants entering the air.

Air travel has also dropped by over 50% compared to last year, leading to aeroplane emissions being cut by over a third, the equivalent of taking 6 million cars off the road. The aviation industry is responsible for approximately 5% of climate change, with their carbon emissions roughly doubling between 1990 and 2019. Although this might be temporary, some of the airline bailouts in Europe have come with conditions to meet the terms of the Paris agreement, including a 50% reduction in carbon emissions and investments in greener fuel.

This rapid decline in activity has seriously crippled the oil industry, with oil prices the lowest they’ve been in two decades. Many experts believe that this will permanently alter the course of the climate crisis, leaving 2019 as the peak year for carbon emissions. However, others think that it is just a glitch and that the fossil fuel industry will bounce back just like it always has, slowing down the much-needed transition to clean energy. Even so, this gives us an opportunity to invest in cleaner forms of energy in order for us to move forward instead of going back to how things were.

Improved air quality hasn’t just bettered the environment, but our health too. A recent study by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air has proven the benefits of a low-carbon atmosphere, exhibiting 11,000 fewer deaths from pollution in the UK and Europe, as well as 6,000 fewer children developing asthma, 1,900 prevented emergency room visits, and 600 fewer pre-term births. This research is reflected in health professionals’ own experiences; “We have seen many fewer patients admitted with exacerbations of asthma and COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] over the last month and there is no doubt that a fall in air pollution is part of the reason”, says Dr LJ Smith, consultant in respiratory medicine at King’s College Hospital.

While the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the lives of millions – causing over 250,000 deaths worldwide – the response to it has offered a glimpse of a cleaner, healthier environment that could be ours if we turn our backs on polluting fossil fuel industries post-lockdown, and has given the world a glimmer of hope to hold on to amidst the chaos of 2020.

Image by Brenna Quinlan – @brenna_quinlan on Instagram.

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