COVID-19 has had disastrous effects on humans around the globe. It has killed thousands, left even more in financial despair, and infected millions of people worldwide. However, it does not come without a silver lining. As a result of coronavirus-related shutdowns, air pollution, which plays a major role in whether those infected with COVID-19 live or die, is at its lowest level in years. If we pay close enough attention, this pandemic can also function as a learning moment for the climate crisis.
Worldwide, air pollution levels have dropped drastically as a result of shelter-in-place orders. The Himalayas are visible to those in India for the first time in years, skies across the globe are clearer than they’ve been in a very long time, and air pollution levels are the best they’ve been in nearly three decades. Perhaps more importantly, highways are empty, planes are grounded, and factories have slowed production, reducing hazardous emissions in the air. While these improvements are exciting, they are temporary. The sharp reduction in fossil fuel pollution as a direct result of shelter-in-place orders has caused a short-term improvement in the quality of air that we are breathing.
However, we cannot expect these results to continue once the pandemic is over and orders are lifted. We must use this moment to pay attention and move forward into a new and better future. If we do not, when the shutdowns are over and life returns to the way it was, so will air pollution levels. We’re already seeing this happen in China, where the shutdown in response to COVID-19 is being slowly lifted. China’s air pollution levels dropped just like ours have. Now that their shutdown is being lifted, air pollution levels have jumped right back up to where they were before. Not only is this extremely disappointing for the fate of our planet, but it’s also extremely scary given that their shelter-in-place orders are not even fully lifted yet. This means that it’s possible that China’s air pollution levels may be even worse once the pandemic is fully over.