The header image for "COVID-19 and the environment" - features the Venetian Canals.

Covid-19 and the Environment

The world is a little topsy-turvy right now. Scary and very uncertain. But this you probably already know. I am writing this from my staycation (self-isolation). While what is happening right now is nothing short of a disaster and showing the true colours of many countries (the UK, for example), the environment seems to be grateful for a little respite.

I have sometimes been guilty of the sentiment that “people are the problem” but I know, and I’m sure you do too, that the real problem is actually capitalism.  If anything, COVID-19 has shown us that people, mostly, are kind and thoughtful. When unbridled by the capitalist system, we turn to art, music, community, and mindfulness. Please keep all notions of “what do you propose instead of capitalism? SOCIALISM?” to yourself. I don’t propose anything, that is a job for someone much more qualified than I.

What prompted me to write this post was mainly the posts of the animals ‘returning’ to the canals of Venice – including the  swans, dolphins, and the fish! But, we now know that this was untrue. We also know that the water in the canals being clear has nothing to do with pollution either, it’s simply because the sediment has settled out from lack of boat traffic. There are countless memes taking the mick out of people for believing this. Even I believed it at first, we all wanted so desperately to believe that nature is just that tenacious and resilient. We wanted it to be true. However, do not fret. There is still some good environmental news.

China has banned the trade of wildlife:

Photo of a tiger lying in the snow.

In the light of the novel coronavirus outbreak, China has banned the trade of wildlife. The virus is thought to have come from animals (a zoonotic disease) and a direct result of the erosion of biodiversity.  This ban is groundbreaking as China, heavily set in its traditional ways, has been a pain in conservationists’ sides for a long time.

There are calls from conservationists to make the ban permanent, so we shall see what happens here. Although, China’s pledge is only to amend the aspects of the law that pertain to consumption of wild meat and not the sections referring to fur, leather, or parts needed for traditional medicines. There are worries that this exemption will lead to legalised trade in the future, in the hopes that regulations will prevent further outbreaks or that the temporary nature of the ban will mean business-as-usual once this is all over. Only time will tell, I suppose.

Air pollution:

Crowded street with cars passing by. Photo by suzukii xingfu.

Here in Kingston, the roads are scarily clear. Usually there are hour-long traffic jams that occur twice a day. Without a reliable public transport system everyone is either driving or in a taxi. But no more. Almost everyone is staying themselves indoors. I live on a busy main road and it has never been so quiet in my apartment.

There has been a noticeable and measurable decrease in air pollution levels in areas, such as Italy and China, that have taken strict countermeasures against the spread of the virus. No vehicles or industry operation = no pollution.

Climate Change:

If you’re social distancing (and unless you’re providing a necessary service i.e. medical or food retail etc., you should be) you are saving more than just lives – you may be saving the planet as well by slowing climate change.

Some game counters in a group and one seperate. Illustrating social distance. Photo by Markus Spiske.

With most flights grounded, and many people working from home – it tracks that the levels of greenhouse gases being produced would be greatly reduced. It is stated that one of the greatest things an individual can do for the environment, is to reduce unnecessary travel. Since we’re all going nowhere, there’s very little necessary travel to be done. There are other factors at play here, such as people using their home climate control because they’re home more and people filling the long hours with some online shopping. Both of which may end up offsetting any climate benefits from reduced travel.

Long term:

I know it might be foolish of me to feel optimistic about any future environmental benefits of this, but we have to find the good where it lives. All these improvements are temporary. It is very likely that as soon as we are all set free again, these levels will quickly return to the way they were and maybe even get worse. People will double down on all the things they have been deprived of. Yes, we will go a bit nuts for a week or so. Hopefully, once we get it all out of our system we can reflect on the lessons learned from this experience and be better for it. Wishful thinking perhaps. I believe that this lil break, this little hiatus gives us the space to understand that maybe we don’t need to be on the go all the time.

Despite what may be negligible overall climate benefits, I think this is a real teaching moment. People are working from home, learning from home, and functioning with some semblance of normalcy. Things that many would have deemed improbable a few weeks ago. Some things do require us to commute, but the majority of the time it is unneeded. I personally have felt that I would benefit from being able to working from home – almost all of my work is doable from my bedroom and I could still come in for meetings or when I needed some social interaction. Unfortunately, it seems my prayers were answered (be careful what you wish for)! I’d like to think we’ll see more people taking the opportunity to work from home in the wake of this pandemic. And, as a result, lessen the impact that our excessive travelling is having on the environment. Here’s hoping the powers that be take some steps to make this a reality.

Hopefully, the inability to travel doesn’t jeopardise the climate negotiations scheduled for this year and cause more harm than good.

I hope you and all your loved ones are keeping well! Wash your hands, stay safe, and stay home!  We all have a role to play, so ensure that you act responsibly.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Lots of love,

Jessica x

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