By Victoria Rochard, Thought Leadership, SAP
Scrolling through Facebook recently, there was one picture that grabbed my attention. Not a Zoom Happy Hour or people expressing their thanks for our key workers, but a beautiful photo of the Himalayas.
According to CNN, people in some regions of India can see the Himalayas for the first time in 30 years, thanks to reduced air pollution – a side effect of the lockdown in the region. Despite the hardship COVID-19 has created, people are finding comfort in the view of the mountain range, previously denied to them.
The pandemic has taught us that no matter how well prepared we thought we were, nothing can prepare us for a healthcare emergency of this scale.
It was unimaginable before this, that entire countries would shut down, that people would be paid to stay home and that we ‘d only leave home to exercise and buy essentials. Yet, we’ve taken action and we’ve taken it quickly. We’ve done what needed to be done to save many hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of lives.
So, this leaves us with a question. If we can do this for a pandemic, why not make similar changes to stop or slow down climate change? Is it too slow of a catastrophe to capture our attention, and enact world-wide change? Is the mounting evidence of climate emergencies not enough to create an appetite for change? The pandemic has proven that this change is possible.
COVID-19 Environmental Impact: Cleaner Air and Clear Waterways Demonstrate Benefits of Reduced Emissions
Measurements from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P satellite show that during late January and early February 2020, levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) over cities and industrial areas in Asia and Europe were lower than in the same period in 2019, by as much as 40%. In China, air pollution caused by nitrogen dioxide dropped so much that NASA could measure it from space.
The benefits of reduced air pollution, particularly in China, have been studied –– and are surprising. In 2007, Chinese officials wanted the air around Beijing cleaned up ahead of the 2008 Olympics.
“At that point, Beijing had some of the dirtiest air in the world. And so what we saw in late 2007 and early in 2008 was one of the most dramatic efforts to rapidly clean up air quality that we’ve probably seen anywhere throughout human history,” said Marshall Burke, an environmental economist at Stanford University, in an interview with the Freakonomics podcast.
“They raised the price of gasoline to encourage people to not drive. They prohibited certain polluting vehicles from being on the roads at all. They shut down a range of manufacturing plants, cement manufacturers, concrete manufacturers. They forced some of the large steel plants to either turn off or to actually relocate. And all of this had a really dramatic effect on air quality. Air quality improved by about a third in the span of just a couple months.”
And what effect did that have on the people living in the region?
“You can compare how mortality changed in Beijing relative to other cities that did not see this dramatic change in air pollution,” says Burke. “So the researchers found very large reductions in child and infant mortality and very large reductions in old-age mortality.”
Will The World Return To Business As Usual, Or Make Efforts To Maintain Environmental Benefits?
It’s clear that we don’t need (or want) a pandemic to force-function cleaner air, though such results may help to convince governments around the world to take action once this is all said and done. In addition, polluted air seems to help COVID-19 spread –– and initially made it worse.
Air pollution helps viruses that affect our respiratory systems, because pollution damages our respiratory systems making all of us more susceptible to such viruses. To aid in the reduction of spread for future epidemics, reducing air pollution now will be important.
Two weeks after the nationwide lockdown was announced on March 23 in the UK, NO₂ pollution in some cities fell by as much as 60% compared to the same period in 2019. NASA revealed that NO₂ pollution over New York and other major metropolitan areas in north-eastern USA was 30% lower in March 2020, compared to the monthly average from 2015 to 2019.
And it isn’t just cleaner air and skies that we are seeing. In Venice, the canals are clearer than ever –– reflective, even and dolphins are returning. Not because of a reduction in pollution, but because of a reduction in boat traffic that has allowed sediment to settle at the bottom. And now, as a side effect of all the slow down, nature is coming back full force in a way we’ve never experienced.
Wildlife, in fact, is coming back in all sorts of places. From The Guardian: “Coyotes, normally timid of traffic, have been spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Deer are grazing near Washington homes a few miles from the White House. Wild boar are becoming bolder in Barcelona and Bergamo, Italy. In Wales, peacocks have strutted through Bangor, goats through Llandudno and sheep have been filmed on roundabouts in a deserted playground in Monmouthshire.”
By shutting down huge elements of the global economy – mass polluters included – we have seen how quickly we can improve air quality when emissions are reduced on a global scale – and business leaders are taking note.
We can create an environment for wildlife to flourish. I’ve certainly enjoyed the vivid blue, quieter skies in my weeks at home. The birdsong is louder and the reduction in traffic on our roads makes life safer for everyone.
At the very least, this should prove that change is possible, that it can be done quickly and most importantly that governments can work together and follow the science if the situation demands it.
We should ask ourselves why it has proved so very difficult to take polluting cars off the road, why governments couldn’t provide higher incentives to help drive the switch to cleaner fuels and why we can’t make change happen quicker than targets currently set.
For instance in a joint pledge by members of the European Union (EU). EU Member States agreed to a 2030 target of at least a 40% reduction in emissions. If we can achieve such reductions in a few weeks, why do we need to wait years?
It is in times like these, indeed, that we recognize what is truly important: relationships, mental and physical health, basic hygiene, and our continued love affair with the natural world that brought us to be.
Maybe, once this is all over (and I hope it will be soon), we can re-focus on our commitment to solving the biggest challenge of all: our climate emergency.
Learn more about how SAP is committed to helping customers transition to a low-carbon economy and deliver on their climate goals.