Celebrating Earth Day in 2020 takes on a different meaning

By Faith Pitsikoulis
April 22, 2020

Ironically, COVID-19 has had a potentially positive impact on the environment. It has exposed a range of man-made issues.

The coronavirus has confirmed various atrocities in society that many Americans have tried to bring to light for decades.  A failed healthcare system, a dying planet, severe wealth inequality, racial disparities and a complete neglect of science have been pushed to the forefront in America.  One of the most evident example among those issues is climate change.

Closed playground in Alajuela, Costa Rica. Photo by Michelle Campos.

Our planet has become significantly cleaner as a result of COVID-19.  Pollution has decreased and greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced due to measures put in place to stop the spread of the disease.  Social distancing and blocking all unnecessary travel has limited the detrimental impact humans have on the planet. Countries have empty city streets, restaurants, museums, businesses and schools.  Flights have been canceled, and law enforcement has stopped drivers across the United States.

Throughout the pain and suffering currently felt around the world, these changes show a healthier and more clean environment.  Pollution levels in New York have reduced by almost 50 percent, and C02 emissions have dropped between 5-10 percent. In a two-week period, China has seen a 25 percent decrease in energy use and emissions, and coal use has fallen by 40 percent at six of their largest power plants.  Researchers are predicting the plant to reach levels that have not been recorded since 2009.  Globally, transport makes up 23 percent of carbon emissions.  Driving releases 72 percent of those greenhouse gases, while aviation releases 11 percent of the gases.  COVID-19 has greatly exposed the effects of travel and energy use on our planet.

Empty streets in Rome, Italy. Photo by Stefano Contin.

Changes are even visible from outer space.  Satellite images and atmospheric monitors have provided scientists with in-depth information on the current state of pollution.  According to Chicago’s PBS station (WTTW), there has been an extreme reduction in nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide in the atmosphere.

Inger Andersen, the head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), has warned the world not to rejoice when it comes to environmental benefits.  She stated the only silver lining that could come out of this pandemic would be efficient systemic changes and a more sustainable economy.

Andersen does not believe it is a silver lining, because the positive effects will completely vanish if people return to old systems and ways of life.  The environmental improvements are, as of right now, temporary. The resurgence of economies and severe stress facing humans will increase levels yet again after the stay-at-home orders cease.

Of course, a healthier planet would lead to less deadly viruses that have caused our current shelter-in-place orders and self-quarantining.  Production and consumption of food must be reevaluated and corrected to prevent the spread of viruses. Eco-friendly buildings, green transportation and an increase in renewable energy make for safer spaces where food can be distributed.  An article from UN News stresses the importance of wildlife protection.  As humans continue to impose on ecosystems, illegal wet markets will remain, and diseases will keep spreading.

The Trump Administration was warned about the likely possibility of a deadly pandemic in the following years, but scientists were scorned yet again.  Science was ignored. Ignoring climate change has persisted for decades, but this time people cannot afford to ignore the sudden improvement of the planet during these times.  COVID-19 was not caused directly by climate change, or any issue regarding the environment. However, a healthier planet could have avoided the situation that began the pandemic in the first place.

The denial of climate change has put the possibility of our planet dying out of the minds of millions of Americans.  Now, the deadly virus created by unsanitary markets has interrupted travel, energy use and human interference with wildlife.  COVID-19 has displayed that the condition of the environment has the ability to kill us before having the privilege of denying our true impact.

Ironically, a main source of entertainment for people during a global pandemic is a Netflix original docu series, focused on wildlife held in captivity for profit and enjoyment.  Meanwhile, public parks and nature preserves have never been busier as people are “stuck” outside, participating in a healthy and mutually beneficial relationship with the great outdoors.

Faith Pitsikoulis

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