With billions of people around the world under stay-at-home measures, one unexpectedly positive consequence is how this has affected the environment. Stay at home orders have reduced pollution and replenished wildlife around the globe. The air is clearer, waters are cleaner and wild animals are reclaiming natural habitats.
As daily life came to a grinding halt because of the pandemic, cities across the globe reported less air pollution in many major cities.
- During a single week in March, New York City’s emissions and carbon-monoxide levels dropped more than 50% due to citizens staying at home.
- Los Angeles, the traffic-congested city with some of the highest smog levels in the U.S., has seen nitrogen levels lower significantly and rush-hour traffic essentially vanish.
- The Denver skies now have increased visibility of mountains located hours away.
This phenomenon is happening in megacities worldwide.
India’s visibility change is incredible
New Delhi alone has recorded a 60% drop in fine particulate matter, the world’s deadliest air pollutant. The picture below shows the India Gate War Memorial on October 17, 2019, months before the nationwide lockdown, and again on April 8, after lockdown. People in Punjab, India say they can see the snow peaks of the Himalayas—a view blocked for decades by air pollution.
Venice canals sparkle again
Without boat traffic, the water in Venice canals is crystal clear instead of its usual murky green color. You can see straight to the bottom, and fish have returned.
Skies are free of smog in some parts of China…
In China, at the beginning of the year, emissions fell 25% as people were instructed to stay at home and factories were shuttered. Coal use fell by 40% at the country’s six largest power plants since the last quarter of 2019. The proportion of days with “good quality air” was up 11.4% compared with the same time last year in 337 cities across China, according to its Ministry of Ecology and Environment.
Earth-observing satellites take the pulse of our planet from space. While the global lockdown has upended daily life and the economy, environmental benefits are visible from space. In Europe, satellite images show nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions fading away over northern Italy, Spain, the UK and China.
And, as humans stay inside, the environment is temporarily changing: wild animals are roaming through towns. Now that busy streets are empty, animals are reclaiming their space—peacocks stroll the streets of Dubai and Spain, goats wander through a town in North Wales, a wild puma climbs down from the Andes Mountains into Santiago (Chile), and coyotes saunter around San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The environmental impact since the start of the year is striking to behold. There is a strange beauty in seeing the empty and abandoned streets, airplane-free skies and wandering animals.
Even at a New Hampshire lake we visit often, we now need to swim and kayak around families of loons that were once hard to sight.
This offers a rare large-scale experiment for scientists to see how human emissions contribute to hazardous air quality and to analyze the effectiveness of particular policy ideas. Scientists warn, though, against celebrating any short-term benefits from the decline in air pollution since levels will likely rebound once global restrictions lift.
But maybe there’s something you and I can do about that.
Highlight of the Week: Beluga whale has room to play
While the pandemic has brought the world to a grinding halt, our planet’s more sensitive wildlife, including beluga whales, have a welcome reprieve from the human activity that usually poses a threat to their existence. This results in quieter, calmer waters for these sonar-sensitive creatures to play.
Challenge of the Week: Lower your personal emissions
We can clearly see the impact of our day-to-day lives on our planet.
How can we protect these environmental benefits when returning to “business as usual”? Can we commute fewer days per week? Can we plan zoom meetings instead of flying or driving long distances for a single meeting?
Consider how you can lower your own emissions, including reducing your home energy use: What are your heating and cooling temperature settings? Do you unplug small appliances after use? To find ways to save energy, your local power company will conduct a free audit. Take advantage of this and discover more about how much energy you’re using and what’s taking the most power.
Cut down on your water use, make simple everyday food and clothing changes, and support environmental organizations. Then vote to keep environmental protections in place and preserve our natural resources, animals and parks!
Take steps for a better quality of life not just for us, but also generations to come.
To get started today, check out the 35 Easiest Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.
Kendall Webb, Executive Director