These are difficult days for humanity with most of us now housebound to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Quite rightly, this life-and-death issue has to take priority until the threat passes. However, unusual times like these have created an link between pollution and the coronavirus that offers us the opportunity to view things in a different way and make some interesting observations.
Using less and treading lightly on the world
For quite a while now, we’ve known that the world is struggling under the weight of human consumption and human pollution. There have been great amounts of progress towards minimising unnecessary consumption and pollution, especially plastic pollution, even though much, much more needs to be done. However, with the coronavirus threat, many people have gone into super-consumption mode and are stock-piling. It’s understandable because people are afraid, but it’s interesting to observe.
Also, any concern about plastic pollution has dissipated temporarily. The amount of food being stockpiled with plastic packaging is astonishing. The protective equipment for health professionals (all very necessary of course) appears to be mostly plastic. The coronavirus testing kits being manufactured at pace contain lots of plastic. Hand-sanitiser dispensers are almost always plastic. The UK has (temporarily?) abolished the charge on plastic bags at supermarkets.
I agree that this can’t be helped at the moment and protecting people has to be our immediate priority; but we also have to remember that we’re protecting people so we can continue to have meaningful lives. If we choke the world with plastic, we might find it hard to live in such a place.
I keep thinking of Satish Kumar’s call to “tread lightly on the world” (see Elegant Simplicity – The Art of Living Well). It’s a good thing to keep in mind. There’s nothing wrong with treading lightly on the world with everything we do, but the human race doesn’t have a good track record of doing that.
In the UK, we’ve had a series of perfectly clear days recently (it’s the first time in a while, so that’s nice) and I’m very interested to see far less vapour trails than normal (we live a bit south of London). In May last year, I wrote an article about this – Plane Pollution – a huge problem. On clear days, we often see what looks like a high, hazy cloud cover but this isn’t cloud at all, it’s just the dispersed remnants of all the aeroplane pollution. Horrible to think about really.
But recently the skies have been clearer and definitely more blue. It’s good to be able to see this clear evidence of the reduction in this pollution so quickly after flights have been reduced because of the coronavirus.
Pollution around cities
There are plenty of news reports from many of the large cities in the world now stating that there are significant and obvious drops in pollution levels and improvements in air quality, all because of the dramatic reduction in human activity since the coronavirus appeared (there are some links at the bottom of this page). This is some really good proof that humans (or at least the way we’ve been living in recent decades) really do have a bad impact on the environment we live in. We’re not doing ourselves any favours. And this shouldn’t come as any surprise, we’ve really known this for a long time. Back in 2014, I wrote this article – Traffic jams are more than just annoying – and in the December just gone I wrote – Everything must change – without knowing what was going to happen with the coronavirus.
Atmospheric CO2 concentration
I’m interested to know if the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is reducing already. I was kind of hoping we’d be able to see a drop in this type of pollution, but there’s nothing noticeable yet. There’s a good site called co2.earth that gives daily, weekly and monthly updated numbers from different sources. Unfortunately, there’s no observable downward adjustment of the increasing trend of CO2 in our atmosphere. I wonder if that’s because we’ve pumped so much into it over the last 70 years or so that it will take a more prolonged period of lower activity to see a noticeable effect. Also, we’re still using a lot of energy (often fossil fuels) to heat homes, cool homes and run our computer systems (including our beloved Cloud and streaming services).
Copernicus and nitrogen dioxide
And something I’ve learnt just recently, is that a new satellite was launched a couple of years ago, called Copernicus Sentinel-5P, for the purpose of being able to measure different types of pollution in the air. One of the things they’re measuring is the Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) pollution around the globe and this is something linked to polluting gases created by modern human activity. This is something I have to look into more, but the European Space Agency released some NO2 images (see this page) that are a bit scary. An example is this image below. It’s astonishing to me that we can see our pollution from a satellite in space, but I guess I should have known that.
If we actually needed proof that human activity on Earth is having a significantly damaging effect, then we have it in abundance now thanks to the unusual link between pollution and the coronavirus. The sudden slowdown of human activity due to the coronavirus and the associated reduction in some forms of pollution makes the link very obvious. There’s no avoiding the truth. And we’ve now been given a chance to decide how we want to progress from here, and ask what is truly important? Do we want to tread lightly on the world and live potentially beautiful and creative lives, or do we want to exploit the Earth rapidly and die with a tidy sum in our bank accounts?
Related Links – Plastic, pollution and the coronavirus
- Coronavirus: Air pollution and CO2 fall rapidly as virus spreads – from BBC News
- Coronavirus pandemic leading to huge drop in air pollution – from The Guardian
- Air pollution goes down as Europe takes hard measures to combat coronavirus – from the European Environment Agency
- https://www.co2.earth – for atmospheric CO2 concentration statistics
- Our choices can release CO2 – choose wisely
- From the ESA – Nitrogen dioxide pollution mapped