ARE INTERNATIONAL CORONAVIRUS LOCKDOWNS ENABLING THE ENVIRONMENT TO RECOVER?
Written by Yachting Pages
Last updated: 03/04/2020
Worldwide the COVID-19 pandemic has spun societies into a frenzy, with entire nations under quarantine. It goes without saying that everybody is experiencing a modern global event unlike any other in recent history
With normality a distant dream, people are having to adapt to social distancing, and crafting their lives into the digital landscapes. Although, in this absence nature is claiming back – mountain goats have taken over Welsh cities, and in Brazil endangered Hawksbill turtles have been hatching in abundance without humans to navigate around en-route to sea.
Cities have become ghost towns during quarantine, and the question is: In the contextual absence of the human race, is the environment beginning to recover? Yachting Pages has delved into the findings around the world to investigate the affects it is having.
CO2 levels have been increasing at an unprecedented rate, with each year averaging an increase of 3 parts per million (ppm). This means that today’s rate of increase is more than 100 times quicker than when the last ice-age ended.
However, with flights being halted, planes being turned around mid-flight and all travel minimised in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus, it is a good time to look at how the pause in the previously unceasing burning of fossil fuels across the world is changing our pollution levels. It has only been a few months of slowing pollution, but so far it seems 2020 may see a drop of 0.3% in global emissions.
In the mountain tops of Hawaii, scientists are closely monitoring the atmosphere for clues of how this first economic shock of our lifetime has impacted rising CO2 levels. The Mauno Loa observatory is 3,397 metres above sea level and home to the Keeling Curve, which has been tracking carbon dioxide concentrations since 1958. Ralph Keeling, professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego and son of the Keeling Curve founder at Mauno Loa observatory, told Climate Home News, “There has never been an economic shock like this in the whole history of the curve.”
It has been estimated by Keeling that if we were to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10% in a year, we would only reduce by 0.5 ppm. However, measurements in March 2020 has seen the Keeling Curve pointing downwards for the first time in many years.
Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, has had the coldest winter in ten years which indicates that the surrounding seas have had more ice. This means that ice containing carbon dioxide is not melting and releasing that CO2 into the air. Keeling added, “We can hope that emissions stay down for the right reasons afterwards. This [coronavirus] is not the right reason.”
Pollution in China
China is renowned for its sepia filter visibility caused by high pollution levels in the air. However, in just a few months of human quarantine, blue sky is visible with many of the population seeing the cleanest pollution levels during their lifetime. Nitrogen Oxide (NO2), a dangerous gas released by burning fuel, has since dissipated since the virus outbreak. Fei Lui, air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, said in a statement this month, “This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event.”
Since January the city of Wuhan, the origin of the first coronavirus patients, halted planes, trains, subways and most private vehicles. As the virus spread, businesses were shut down due to quarantine and travel was stopped, thus curbing emissions.
The air clarity will provide some relief to the population of China during the coronavirus, due to how the virus affects the respiratory system. Nitrogen Oxide also deteriorates the respiratory system, so with less of this is the air it gives the population a greater chance of fighting off the virus should they become infected. Marshall Burke, an assistant professor at Stanford's Department of Earth System Science, estimated that cleaner air has saved between 50,000 and 75,000 lives in China alone over these past few months.
A high percentage of the population was suffering from respiratory issues due to the extremely high pollution levels, unfortunately resulting in a high death rate. It begs the question, why is pollution not being considered a health crisis? Will the obvious clarity in the air during the coronavirus pandemic influence a change in attitude towards the pollution of our societies? Just imagine a world where coronavirus is a distant dream, but also where human society can breathe fresh clean air, even in large cities.
With many countries on lockdown, vessel movements have now been banned in some marinas. Various marinas have swiftly adopted a more digital approach, providing people with virtual tours and boat shows. This reduction in marine activity has created an unexpected ripple effect – Venice is one such example, demonstrating how the absence of marine disruption has positively impacted canals and surrounding waters.
The Italian city, with beautiful intertwining canals renowned for hosting courting lovers aboard floating gondolas and the odd speed boat or yacht, is, at present, a sombre ghost city. The canals are serene and now hosting nothing more than a floating duck and fish swimming underwater. With the lack of marine industry movement, there has been no recent disruption to the underwater sediments, giving the waters chance to clear. The result? Gleaming blue waters with clear visibility of the fish underneath. Venice is beautiful already, but consider how beautiful it would be without the petrol-fuelled boats muddying the waters.
The ocean is Earth's breathing lungs, constantly filtering carbon dioxide into oxygen. 34 million tons of carbon is stored per year in global mangroves alone (Sutton-Grier et al., 2017). However, when CO2 mixes with water it drops the PH level on the ocean’s surface, which then negatively impacts coral reef systems. Coral is an essential component of the Earth’s makeup, offering a protective lining to shelter the most biodiverse marine systems in times of storm and flooding. The destruction changes its beauty and functionality leaving its remnants alike war-zone ruins. So with the hope of lowering CO2 levels, corals will have a fighting chance to resist the negative impacts.
What can we learn?
COVID-19 is the largest global crisis since the Second World War, which for many of us is simply an historical event we’ve heard about through grandparents and history lessons at school; however, the coronavirus crisis is dwarfed by the growing climate change crisis. Both have been long predicted by scientists and both require immediate drastic action by governments to eradicate the hastening advance down the climate disaster road.
The coronavirus is the first-ever economic shock this widespread in history and could present an example of what life could be with lower emissions.
Furthermore, we can also learn from how deforestation can expel many animals from their habitats, forcing them into human settlements. In just 40 years, Southeast Asia has lost 30% of the forest area. Jordi Serra-Cobo, a biologist from the Department of Evolutionary Biology, Ecology and Environmental Sciences and the Institute of Research on Biodiversity (Irbio) of the University of Barcelona (UB), explained in a statement, "Bats, of which there are 1,300 species, are the group of mammals that harbour the greatest number of coronaviruses. They represent 20% of all mammals and are virus reservoirs."
Whilst the bats may not be the primary cause of COVID-19 – socioeconomic and globalisation changes are also two major causes – we can still learn from recognising potential origins and how to prevent another crisis in the future.
Essentially, we have a beautiful blank template where, when society does reconvene, low-carbon industries can be prioritised. We need to make sure that people who may have lost their jobs during the virus are employed at companies with green initiatives, with room for their employees to grow with no effect on the environment.
Let’s build new homes, emission-free with electric boilers, and provide initiatives for the regular person to be able to buy electric vehicles and vessels. It is apparent that in a crisis we are able to adapt; let’s not forget about the climate one that is taking place around us.
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Sources: CO2 EARTH, The Verge, Earth Observatory NASA, CNBC, The New York Times, The Guardian, Climate Home News, CNN Health, Global News