A sea of flamingos in Mumbai. Goats taking over a coastal community in Wales. Dolphins swimming through crystal-clear waters in Venice. Evidence of a silver lining amid the COVID-19 cloud? A glimmer of hope that the world’s moment of pause is giving mother nature a much-needed reprieve from the strain of mankind?
Like the validity of those heartening images floating around the internet, the answer is yes and no.
While tens of thousands of flamingos did flock to India’s largest metropolis, they do that every year to feed and breed. There were, however, markedly more flamingos this year, according to the Bombay Natural History Society, which, in an interview with the Hindustan Times, attributed the increase to less human activity. And although those dolphins weren’t actually traversing the Venice canals, they were enjoying the quietude of another usually heavily trafficked spot — a port in Sardinia, according to National Geographic — and the waters of Venice have in fact run clearer as a result of less boat traffic.
Globally, carbon dioxide emissions fell by 17% during the COVID-19 confinement period, according to new research published in the journal Nature Climate Change. However, the article notes that the dip is likely to be temporary and not reflective of structural, systemic change. And at the same time, deforestation — a major contributor to air pollution and climate change — is reportedly on the rise in places like the Amazon rainforest.
“The Climate Crisis Is a Health Crisis”
In January 2020, before the coronavirus overtook the headlines as the world’s biggest health crisis, the World Health Organization (WHO) published its list of urgent, global health challenges for the upcoming decade. Topping that list, ahead of epidemic preparedness, was the climate crisis — specifically, the recognition of climate change as a health crisis. According to WHO, air pollution is responsible for an estimated 7 million deaths per year — 5.6 million from noncommunicable diseases. Disturbingly, research from Harvard has linked air pollution to higher COVID-19 death rates.
Furthermore, causes and effects of climate change may heighten the threat of the very type of pandemic outbreak we are dealing with today, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Factors like global warming and deforestation, for instance, can influence migration patterns, creating opportunities for pathogens to jump from animals to humans.
Has Staying Home Made a Difference?
As we are still in the midst of the pandemic, we cannot ascertain the full impact of social distancing and stay at home orders on the environment. But based on the evidence that has emerged to date, it isn’t likely to be profound unless further, longer term action is taken. As climate scientist Richard Betts told National Geographic, although carbon dioxide emissions dropped considerably, it will likely have an “infinitesimal” effect on overall greenhouse gas levels.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat and transportation accounts for the largest source of human-related greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. As cars sat parked and airplanes remained grounded to stop the spread of COVID-19, greenhouses gases continued to power people’s ability to stay safe and productive at home.
The environmental impact of COVID-19 appears so far to be a mixed bag. But given the ecological and public health implications of climate change, even small findings can have significant meaning and help shape future research.
There is also insight to be gained from the global response to the pandemic. When tasked with staying home to save lives, people around the world rose to the challenge, and these actions have largely been effective in flattening the curve. It seems there are a number of global challenges that this type of unified effort — government, industry and the general public — could serve to address; protecting the environment should be one we can all get behind.