Skies Are Clearer and Global Pollution Is Down Because of COVID-19 — But Can We Sustain It?

Climate change expert Dr. Courtney Howard and Nature Climate Change scientists say we can sustain the cleaner environment we're seeing by going greener right now

Clear Sky
Photo: Subash Shrestha/Pacific Press/Shutterstock

All the social distancing, working from home and Netflix binging we've been doing to stay healthy and keep COVID-19 from overloading our hospitals add up to make the world cleaner.

According to a new study from the scientists at Nature Climate Change, greenhouse gases worldwide dropped by a whopping 17 percent in early April 2020 as compared to 2019 because of the pandemic.

That’s good news because it shows that the world can reduce carbon emissions by a lot, which scientists say humanity needs to do if we are to survive in decades to come.

The reality check: People have to keep the momentum going and drastically reduce carbon emissions by moving to renewable energy sources to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change in coming years.

As it is, 2020 will likely end up as one of the hottest years in history, with more devastating storms, droughts and floods to come, according to a groundbreaking study recently released by Nature Climate Change.

These reductions in greenhouse gases are beneficial for the time being, but they are no “silver lining,” the analysis reveals.

“Population confinement has led to drastic changes in energy use and CO2 emissions,” the study’s lead author, Professor Corinne Le Quéré of the University of East Anglia said. “These extreme decreases are likely to be temporary though, as they do not reflect structural changes in the economic, transport or energy systems.”

Now is the perfect time to incorporate changes that will not only reduce greenhouse gases but protect us from future pandemics, say Quéré and planetary health expert Dr. Courtney Howard.

Dr. Courtney Howard
Dr. Courtney Howard. Dr. Courtney Howard/Instagram

“COVID-19 has been disruptive, costly, and tragic, but there are some hopeful elements that we can pull out of this pivotal moment in human history,” says Howard, an ER doctor in Yellowknife, Canada, who is also board president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and TEDx speaker.

Here are five positives to take away from the pandemic as we continue to fight COVID-19 and the even larger existential threat of climate change:

1. More Time to Snuggle, Work Out and Just Be

“Now that many have mastered Zoom, and have equipped their homes for virtual work, we can expect at least some degree of telecommuting to continue as we open up and children go back to school, saving people up to several hours a day in commuting time,” Howard tells PEOPLE.

“We know that longer driving time, particularly over a couple of hours per day, is associated with insufficient physical activity, less sleep and worse physical and mental health, and so this gives us back our most precious resource: time. Time to exercise, time to cook healthy meals at home, time to snuggle with our kids, time to rest.”

2. We Can Succeed When We Put Our Minds to It

“When pressed, we prioritize health and are capable of changing the world quickly," says Howard. "Sometimes in climate-related work, people have gotten discouraged by entrenched habits and power structures. Could we ever have pictured, at Christmas, that the world could change this much, this quickly?"

“Now we know that, although our responses haven't been perfect, we can work together as a global community, and create significant science-based change on a quick time-line," Howard adds. "This helps us see that a rapid, effective response to climate change is possible.”

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3. Fresher Air Means Fewer Deaths

“The reduction in vehicle traffic has cleared the skies in many cities around the world, allowing us to see how bright and fresh the world can feel when we reduce fossil fuel use," says Howard. "With outdoor air pollution responsible for 4.2 million deaths a year around the globe, according to the World Health Organization, this shows us that not only can the world look wonderful when we use less fossil fuels, but that doing so can save lives immediately, and through decreased health impacts of climate change from wildfires, heat-related illness and more, [we can] continue to improve health for generations to come."

4. Science Rules!

“When we work together, we can save lives, and by building back better, we can save more," she says. "I went to school for years to learn how to save lives in the Emergency Room. By listening to scientists, people around the globe have demonstrated how much we care about health, and one another, and have saved lives by staying home!"

“With the Lancet-UNICEF-WHO Future Child Report having shown us that climate change is one of the major health risks for today's children, if we extend that same care for one another to a commitment to a healthy recovery, we have a generational opportunity to channel our economic stimulus funds into the acceleration of a transition to a clean energy economy."

5. Zoom “House Calls” with Your Doc Work

“The virtual provision of medical care has scaled up massively, which will save patients and providers time and travel through the pandemic and beyond, as well as innovating our way towards decreased greenhouse gas emissions," says Howard.

For a hopeful take on climate change and what we can do to preserve our future, check out the new film 2040, which premieres virtually in the U.S. on Friday. The film shows how healthy the planet could be by 2040 if we take advantage of all the climate change solutions available to us now.

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