For the first time, a comprehensive analysis of available data from authentic sources have been used to study the actual impact of the ongoing global lockdown on the natural environment, particularly air pollution. Surprisingly, my study as presented in the article, found that the carbon reduction as result of the ongoing global lockdown has saved more life than lost during the pandemic. As per data from World Health Organization (WHO), outdoor air pollution kills 4.2 million people every year, which is more than 13 times the reported death from COVID-19 till date.
The world saw an unprecedented fall in carbon (CO2) emission and human activities due to the ongoing global lockdown. This has reportedly resulted in the restoration of clear blue sky over smog filled cities and reclamation of their lost territories by wild animals.
But how real is the natural environments’ comeback and its possible benefits for the global health?
According to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), economic restrictions due to the global lockdown and changes in weather could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by almost 8% this year, which is the largest decline in 70 years. Such a fall, though under unfortunate circumstances, is a welcome shift as outdoor air pollution kills 4.2 million people every year, as per data from World Health Organization (WHO). This is more than 13 times the reported death from COVID-19 till date.
Sadly, around 91% of the world’s population live in places where air quality exceeds World Health Organization’s (WHO) guideline limits. But the ongoing global lockdown, though unintended, has resulted in a massive reduction in air pollution to open up the blue sky hidden behind dark smog for decades. The clearing sky gave people in the Indian subcontinent a rare glimpse of famous Himalayan peaks; such as Mt Everest from Kathmandu, Kangchenjunga from Siliguri and Dhauladhar ranges from Jalandhar, after more than 30 years. Some of the cities are located as far as 200 km away from the mountain ranges.
Delhi, notwithstanding, been one of the most polluted cities in the world, has seen a stark shift in recent months with 49% reduction in air pollution and less pollutants flowing in the Yamuna River. The residents were elated to see blue sky over the city, which has been blanketed with smog for decades. As per data records (Weather Online), the city also experienced a much cooler weather condition for the first 10 days of the May 2020 compared to the same period in the last five years. No successive governments in Delhi, for decades, has been able to achieve such a reduction in air pollution despite initiating numerous policies and regulations.
The decline in carbon emission means fewer deaths worldwide, particularly in India. According to Data from WHO, outdoor air pollution contributed to 7.6% of all deaths worldwide in 2016. And as per the State of Global Air 2019 Report, air pollution killed over 1.2 million in India in 2017.
So, could the world’s biggest lockdown ordered by Prime Minister Modi to flatten the COVID-19 curve, contributing to a better air quality and natural environment?
With the enormity of the exercise, which has completely halted the economic engine of the world’s fifth largest economy and restricted the movement of 1.39 billion people for almost two months, logically has to have a tangible impact on the natural environment. An analysis of Indian government data by Carbon Brief, for the first time in four decades, the carbon emission in India fell by an estimate of 15% during the month of March, and the decline could have doubled for the month of April.
The positive impact on the environment from nationwide lockdown is also felt in non-urban areas. About 500km away from Delhi, the hill-station of Dharamshala is experiencing a cold and unusual summer with constantly fluctuating weather condition. Local residents have alluded the over-extended winter to reduced carbon emission during the lockdown. But scientists have linked the milder summer in much of north and central India to a very high western disturbance activity occurring this year. As per an observation by this writer while comparing the temperature records (Weather Online) of the hill-station since 2016, surprisingly found that the first ten days of May 2020 has been the coldest in five years.
China, the first country to enforce lockdowns, also saw a decline in air pollution. As per a paper published in the UK, the lockdown in the Chinese city of Wuhan, from where the virus infection first originated, saw 63% reduction in air pollution. Such a reduction, the paper states, could have prevented 10,822 death in China as a whole, which is twice more than the reported COVID-19 deaths in China. China being the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, any decline means some respite for the nature.
The health crisis, unfortunately, has spread to every corner of the world except for few islands in the Pacific. There are 250 countries or territories dealing with the infection as per the WHO list, which is more than the total number of countries recognized by United Nations. The 15 countries (WHO) with the largest number of COVID-19 infection till date are mostly part of the G7, OPEC and BRICS, basically the wealthiest group of nations on earth with the highest rate of carbon emission. Therefore, a collective lockdown of the fifteen countries, either partial or total, should have naturally contributed to a massive decline in atmospheric pollution.
A global health crisis of even greater proportion could emerge unless we take strong measures to protect the ecological wellbeing of the natural environment. Scientists have recently discovered 28 unknown ancient virus frozen under the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, but glaciers are quickly receding due to global warming. Scientist fear that, as glaciers melt, the ancient virus frozen beneath snow for 15,000 years, could come back to life and release new diseases.
How do we mitigate impending risk depend on how the world move forward post lockdown.
The post lockdown could open up two serious risk to the nature; a huge medical waste and a revenge consumption. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has appropriately forewarned its member states of the risk of increased waste necessitated by the medical response to the health crisis.
The world leaders, rightly took bold decisions to save thousands of lives from the pandemic wave despite a massive economic fallout. A hasty economic revival post lockdown with massive stimulus packages could negate the huge environmental gains made for the first time in decades. As envisioned in the UN sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to eradicate poverty and provide a healthy environment by 2030, the world must learn from the coronavirus catastrophe to strive for a more sustainable economic structure to prevent a climate crisis.
The crisis has shown to the world that an unimaginable rate of carbon reduction could be achieved in a short period, if the leaders are willing.
*Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha is the head of the Environment and the Development Desk of the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.