Earth Day 2020 is going to be one to remember theoughout history. An effect of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, billions of people across the globe are now living under strict lockdown conditions, causing unprecedented reductions in human activity. Not surprisingly, this is having a big impact on the planet in several ways.
This Earth Day—an annual event celebrated internationally every year on April 22 to show support for environmental policy changes—we take a look at just some examples of how the spread of the novel coronavirus is affecting the Earth.
Greenhouse gas emissions
As economies grind to a halt in the face of the pandemic, with impacts on transport, electricity demand and industrial activity, emissions of greenhouse gases are also falling in many areas.
In fact, experts at Carbon Brief have estimated that the pandemic could trigger the largest ever annual fall in carbon dioxide emissions in 2020. The publication predicts that there could be CO2 reductions of around 5.5 percent in 2020 compared to 2019—larger than those seen during any previous economic crisis or war.
Several parts of the world are also experiencing significant drops in air pollution, corresponding to reductions in industrial activity and vehicular traffic.
Meanwhile, India—which was home to several of the most polluted cities in the world before the pandemic, has also seen dramatic falls in air pollution. Data from NASA’s Terra satellite shows that levels of aerosols—tiny solid particles or liquid droplets in the air that come from both man-made and natural sources—in parts of northern India dropped to a 20-year low shortly after the country’s lockdown was introduced.
Some residents living in the city of Jalandhar in the northern state of Punjab have reported being able to see parts of the Himalayas from more than 100 miles away. Known as the Dhauladhar mountain range, these peaks have not been seen from this area of the country for decades.
Perhaps one of the most unusual impacts on the planet as a result of the pandemic has been seismologists noticing drops in ambient “seismic noise”—persistent vibrations in the ground that can result from human activity as well as other factors—in certain urban areas. These vibrations—which are picked up by machines know as seismometers—can be generated by vehicular traffic and industrial activities, for example.
According to Thomas Lecocq, a seismologist at the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, seismic noise resulting from human activities has fallen by about a third in the city. Scientists in California and the U.K. have also noticed similar trends.
The idea to create a day for the Earth was proposed first to the United Nations. Subsequently, environmental advocates in the U.S. organized the first large scale event in 1970 and decided to call it “Earth Day.”
“The organizers of the first Earth Day in the United States had blind-spots,” Karen O’Neill, a professor in the Department of Human Ecology in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University told Newsweek. “The movement was slow to recognize how our demands for cheap goods were coupled with harms to workers and the degradation of ecosystems around the world.”
Since then issues like these have been promoted by environmental justice movements who recognize that the quality of life for people around the world is directly related to environmental health.
“All these conditions are newly relevant and need our renewed attention because they contributed to the spread and severity of the current COVID-19 pandemic,” O’Neill said. “We are cutting new regions of tropical forests for global products like palm oil, reducing biodiversity that supports those forests and exposing more people to novel viruses and other pathogens.”
“The pathways of the virus will vary across the world based on trade relations, transportation networks, and existing social patterns that make some people more vulnerable than others,” she said. “Exposure to air pollution may be an especially important stressor across countries. The pandemic is a reminder that there is no separation between humans and the environment.”