A Potential Unintended Consequence Of The Coronavirus Pandemic – A Cleaner Environment

The environment is showing improvement as travel is limited and people self-quarantine.

A view of an empty canal and road in Venice Italy.
Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images

The environment is showing improvement as travel is limited and people self-quarantine.

As the number of people infected with coronavirus worldwide increases and governments around the globe are implementing strict lockdown procedures, an unintended consequence seems to be forming — the environment has shown drastic improvement.

Over the past few months, the cessation of industry and limitation of movement in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus has led to a drastic decrease in air and water pollution. In the cases of China and Italy — which have been hit particularly hard by the viral outbreak and as such have some of the strictest restrictions — the air and water purity has increased dramatically.

In China, where air pollution has been linked to premature deaths, the reduction in air pollution from the closing of factories and the limiting of car travel has potentially “saved twenty times more lives in China than have currently been lost due to infection with the virus in that country,” theorized Marshall Burke, an assistant professor at Stanford’s Department of Earth System Science, per CNN. He went on to say the better air quality can potentially save between 50,000 and 75,000 people from premature death.

According to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment in China, the average number of “good quality air days” increased by 21.5 percent in February, a few months after China imposed its limitations on travel and manufacturing. This percentage increase was compared to the same region — Hubei, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak — one year prior.

Satellite images released by NASA and the European Space Agency show a huge reduction in the nitrogen dioxide emissions over China. The dramatic decrease occurred after just one month of stopping industrial work and travel by car.

China isn’t the only country to experience an environmental resurgence, however. The lockdown enforced in Italy has allowed the canals in Venice — notoriously dirty and full of trash — to become crystal clear. In fact, they are so clear that people can see to the bottom of them and notice they are filled with schools of fish, reported NBC News.

Air pollution also dropped off in Italy, especially in Northern Italy, where the lockdown has been in effect for a bit longer. Observers from the European Space Agency also showed a drastic decline in nitrogen dioxide over that region, according to The Washington Post.

Although this could be considered a good — albeit grim — result of the coronavirus pandemic, climate scientists warn against a positive outcome. Some say that these changes could be helpful in knowing how to save the environment, while others suggest that the restart of the economy should coincide with a restructuring of existing infrastructure to help maintain these environmental changes.

“As we move to restart these economies, we need to use this moment to think about what we value,” Jacqueline Klopp, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University in New York City, said.

“Do we want to go back to the status quo, or do we want to tackle these big structural problems and restructure our economy and reduce emissions and pollution?”