In the midst of a pandemic which has affected almost every human on the planet, something strange and positive is happening. Nature is hitting a reset button. In China and Italy, the air is now strikingly clean. Venice’s Grand Canal, normally fouled by boat traffic, is running clear. In Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta, the fog of pollution has lifted. Even global carbon emissions have fallen. The one thing the virus outbreak has shown us is that if you wait until you can see the impact, it is too late to stop it.
There is no denying that the pandemic is a disaster that we might take a while to recover from. The unintended benefit from the crisis is that it has cut emissions faster than years of climate negotiations. The Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air estimates that this is equivalent to 200 million tons of carbon dioxide — more than half the annual emissions of Britain.
Satellite images released by NASA and the European Space Agency show a dramatic reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions -- those released by vehicles, power plants and industrial facilities -- in major Chinese cities between January and February. The visible cloud of toxic gas hanging over industrial powerhouses almost disappeared.
The virus is prompting us to change our habits in ways that could make a longer-term contribution to climate protection — working from home, video conferencing, working shorter weeks or staggering office hours to reduce traffic.
In Europe, Venice is seeing a sight it hasn't for a long time, clear waters and fishes can be seen in the city's canal waters due to reduced motor activity. Under Venice’s strict rules of self-confinement to prevent the spread of the coronavirus – all journeys but a trip to walk the dog or buy food are forbidden – the ancient city has been transformed almost overnight.
The lagoons in the city's islands are known to have a fragile eco-system and locals have been campaigning for a more eco-responsible, sustainable model of tourism in Venice for some time. The clarity of the water has improved dramatically in the past weeks. Cormorants have returned to dive for fish they can now see.
All this looks like good news for the planet — at least in the short term. "Suppose you were a policymaker, and you were thinking about what you would do to lower emissions — you just got a pretty good instruction," says Amy Jaffe, director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Energy Security and Climate Change program.
The short-term positive effects on the climate that we’re seeing today serve as a dramatic reminder that changing personal consumption habits will mean very little going forward if we also fail to de-carbonise the global economy.
Coronavirus has highlighted how closely interconnected our global community is. The ripple effect through supply chains also reveals our collective responsibility for emissions, as China's factories supply businesses and consumers in the West.