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Can COVID-19 (coronavirus) help us stop Polluting?

Updated: Dec 25, 2021

The entire world is feeling the effects of COVID-19. Containment protocols have restricted millions of people at home and China’s economy has all but ground to a halt. Being one of the biggest consumer markets and producers in the world, that means the global economy has also significantly slowed.

But despite all the negative consequences, there may be one silver lining, a cleaner environment.

Image provided by NASA

China and the Environment

Like many industrialized nations, China has had issues balancing economic growth and environmental welfare. China is the world’s largest manufacturing economy, a popular choice for outsourcing labor, and is the single largest national contributor to global carbon emissions. Annually, China produces 30% of the world’s carbon emissions.

China is the largest producer and consumer of coal which powers its heavy industries and is the main source of heat for much of the country. The CREA estimates that in just the brief time since China enacted its general lockdown, the country has saved 200 tons of CO2 emissions. Much of that comes from the massive drop in energy demand. “As a measure that took place effectively overnight, this is more dramatic than anything else that I’ve seen in terms of the impact on emissions,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at CREA.

Other Hotspots

But China isn’t the only one experiencing cleaner air. Italy, the second hardest-hit nation and New York the biggest hotspot in the US have also enacted containment protocols such as shutting down travel and social distancing. Both locations have seen a big drop in pollution as a result.

Neither Italy nor New York are huge centers of industry like China is, but they do have a lot of transportation related pollution. New York has already reported a 35% drop in transportation after just a few days of enacting containment protocols.

Exact numbers of how much pollution has reduced are not yet known but it can already be seen in cleaner waters, satellite imaging, and a reduction in pollution related illnesses.

Will This Last?

To be realistic, this reduction in pollution is most likely temporary. Similar cases where pollution has gone down after an economic downturn such as the major recession in the early 2000s has always been met with a flurry of economic activity after to compensate for the down economy.

Especially with China, the same is expected to happen again. Once the lockdown affecting much of China is lifted, manufacturing and in turn pollution is expected to rise back to normal levels if not increase to make up for the economic deficit.

Many environmental advocates believe implementing policy changes to reduce pollution during this time would be the most effective. Many programs and policies have a hard time taking hold because of the disruption it would cause. But enacting them during containment while their lives are already disrupted would make it easier to adapt to such changes.

COVID-19 has provided us with a window to reduce pollution for the long term but with most people struggling just to handle the virus, it is unclear whether or not we can capitalize on this chance.

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