Air Pollution Might Have Dropped But Climate Change Is Still Ravaging Our Planet
Lockdowns have led to a decrease in air pollution across the planet in recent weeks, but that doesn’t mean we can forget about climate change – it’s still happening, and our planet is still suffering.
During these uncertain times it’s important to celebrate positive news, and there’s no doubt the ‘recovery of nature’ has come as a silver lining to our stay-home orders.
I’m not talking about the memes of a blue whale suddenly popping up in your local canal, but rather legitimate news stories that have seen the waters in Venice run clearer than they have for years, and air pollution levels drop across the globe.
These events are the result of people staying at home to prevent the spread of the virus, which in turn has led to a decrease in the amount of emissions being released from cars, planes and cities in general.
Cities such as London, Milan, Rome and Paris have benefitted from a decrease in nitrogen dioxide, a harmful gas emitted by cars, power plants and industrial facilities, as have China and India, where residents can see the Himalayan mountain range for the first time in decades.
With these positive news stories in mind, it’s easy to think that the issue of climate change can be put on the backburner while we deal with the more immediate health issue. But just because climate change isn’t the direct reason we have to stay home doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be focused on it.
Professor Martin Siegert, a climate scientist and co-Director of the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London’s hub for climate change, spoke to UNILAD about how the public’s thoughts on climate change may have shifted as a result of the outbreak.
Professor Siegert agreed that people are less focused on climate change as a result of the virus, but while this shift in priorities is ‘for very good and obvious reasons’, he stressed the ‘climate change problem has not got away’.
Air pollution has decreased and I hope we all appreciate the difference and benefit. However, if we wanted to reduce air pollution, this is not the way we would have liked to achieved the change.
It is an outcome of the response – but it is short term, non-systemic and likely to be reversed if the economy is simply returned to what it used to be – achieving nothing ultimately.
The same is true of global CO2 emissions, which will likely be down 5% this year, but this is a blip. We need a systemic and persistent solution to both air quality and greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate change affects the entire planet, but we don’t have to look far for the vivid and stark reminders that it is still very much an issue.
In the months before the virus hit, charities, celebrities and members of the public were concentrated on the bushfire crisis in Australia, the aftermath of which will have long-lasting effects.
The Australian federal government’s analysis of the fires said that temperate forests usually eventually recover from bushfires and reabsorb most of the carbon dioxide released, but its report noted that rising climate change impacts, including droughts or more frequent and intense fires, could affect the ability of forests to recover.
Alongside specific examples such as the bushfire crisis, figures presented by NASA offer eye-opening insight as to how the health of the planet has declined over the years.
The below graph shows Earth’s rising temperature:
Another shows the rise in sea levels caused by melting ice and the expansion of seawater as it warms:
These disturbing patterns will only continue if things don’t change, which is why the fight against climate change must not be forgotten amid the outbreak.
In recent years, it has been the younger generations who have been noticeably active in the fight against the climate crisis, with school strikes led by 17-year-old Greta Thunberg making headlines across the globe and encouraging young people to fight for a future on a planet where nature hasn’t been completely destroyed.
As stay-home orders have put a stop to public protests, activists have started to utilise online platforms and other safe, socially distant methods to stress that the issue should still be at the forefront of everyone’s minds.
Massin Akandouch, an 18-year-old activist based in Barcelona, Spain, stressed that his generation, Gen Z, is the last that has a fighting chance at reducing the impacts of climate change.
He told UNILAD:
It seems like in this beautiful planet we live in, everything has a place, but our generation is in a grey area where no one can assure us that we’ll be safe in a couple of years. We have been forced to fight for real climate action because we are the ones that will lose the most.
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Coronavirus has stopped us from being in the streets but we won’t stop fighting for our future! This crisis has proven that immediate radical action from world leaders is possible. We’ve managed to shut down the whole planet to protect our families from the virus, let’s do the same to protect our species from extinction. #TBT #ClimateStrike #DigitalStrike #FridaysFotFuture #ClimateStrikeOnline
Massin acknowledged the amazing work done by Thunberg and other activists that led to ‘conversation about the climate crisis being in every single dining room and TV station’, but agreed that since the outbreak it is no longer being considered as a ‘top priority’.
The activist pointed out that we cannot liken the drop in air pollution to ‘healing’, but argued that it could be something we could learn from.
He went on:
Some people are pointing at the decrease in our pollution levels as if we should get over the concerns we have about them, ignoring that even if there has been a fall, numbers are still too high and far from what would be sustainable.
The purity of the air we see today in cities like Barcelona, New York or London has not been seen for decades, and it has proven that only by stopping the speed of activity at which capitalism made us feel comfortable with, will we be able to adopt these levels of solidarity with the planet and the environment.
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a couple of months ago I was asked why I wasn't being part of the strikes on fridays and why wasn't I doing activism for the climate, and my response was always "by being vegan I already do enough". a lot of the activists I knew said the same and I really believed that there was no need for me to do climate activism if I was promoting a vegan & animal-free lifestyle. yesterday I attended the climate strike march in barcelona organized by @fridaysforfuture.bcn where 100.000 people were demanding climate justice and real climate action. my mind was blown up, I had never seen so many young people unite for the climate and then I really understood why it is totally necessary to join the strikes and why we should all become climate activists even if we are vegan. if we want the strikes and marches to be big and loud, we must all unite and join them no matter if we're vegan or not. cause if we justify not going to these events cause we are vegan we will never unite and this fight is for everyone's future! if all vegand and non-vegans join the strikes and are part of climate activism, we'll be louder and action will be taken. by doing activism we not only pressure the people in power to take serious climate action, but we have another opportunity to influence climate activists who are not yet vegan, show them the facts and encourage them to have a lifestyle that respects the planet and the animals.
Now that public protests are out of the question, Massin and other activists across the globe have organised weekly events dubbed ‘#DigitalStrike’, or ‘#ClimateStrikeOnline’. Every Friday, thousands of people take a picture of themselves holding a sign demanding action in order to ‘flood the internet and social media’ with the message.
Social media is just one of the faces of daily activism. Even during this pandemic, we can’t stop speaking up. We can’t afford to waste more time.
Activists are making sure everybody in the world hears about the current situation, and we will encourage them to get involved in a fight in which their life relies on.
Last Friday, April 24, activists protested in Berlin by leaving hundreds signs in front of the German parliament, demanding that officials not only fight the current global crisis, but ‘every crisis’, including climate change.
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Hier ein paar Eindrücke vom heutigen globalen Klimastreik! 🌍💚 Es sind ungewohnte Bilder für einen globalen Streik, an dem eigentlich vor alle. Bilder von großen Menschenmengen in den Medien sind. Auch wenn dies dieses mal nicht möglich war, sind wir überwältigt wie viele Menschen am heutigen #Netzstreik teilgenommen haben & natürlich hoffen wir, dass wir uns bald wieder alle zusammen auf der Straße streiken können.🔥🔥 Bis es soweit ist, werden wir weiter laut bleiben und unseren Protest eben auch nächsten Freitag wieder ins Netz verlegen. ☀️Auf jedenfall nochmal ein fettes Dankeschön an alle die heute dabei waren und gezeigt haben, dass Klimaschutz auch in Zeiten von Corona nicht vergessen werden darf!!!!📢📢 #fighteverycrisis #netzstreikfürsklima #climatestrikeonline
Just because life has taken an unexpected turn doesn’t mean we should start slacking with regards to the environment. If anything, this outbreak has emphasised how nice it is to be able to go out and experience nature and everything the world has to offer – something that won’t be possible in a world ravaged by extreme weather conditions, deforestation and pollution.
Massin encouraged people to use this time to educate themselves further on climate change, whether it be by watching documentaries or following and joining the fight online.
Crucially, Massin also noted the role of world leaders in addressing the climate crisis, and pointed out that the response to the outbreak proves governments are more than capable of taking immediate and dramatic action when necessary.
Now, more than ever before, governments will be eager to do whatever is necessary to put economic growth in their agendas again, even if it is at the expense of damaging our ecosystems, communities and our future even more.
But this outbreak proves that what the climate crisis needs – radical and immediate action – is possible. And as soon as we go back to ‘normality’, they’ll find us back in the streets, demanding something that should be given to us by default; a safe and stable environment and future.
They can’t use their excuses anymore. They’ve taken action in order to protect families from the virus, it’s time that they also take action to protect my generation from the climate crisis.
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School strike week 82. In a crisis we change our behaviour and adapt to the new circumstances for the greater good of society. You can join the #DigitalStrike by posting a picture of you striking with a sign and use the hashtag #ClimateStrikeOnline ! #schoolstrike4climate #fridaysforfuture #climatestrike #covid_19
Similarly, Professor Siegert stressed that any solutions to the virus, which will require ‘long-term investment’, must be compatible with a zero-carbon transition to ensure we do not make the climate crisis even worse.
He told UNILAD:
If we simply return to the previous normal then the climate problem will be unresolved. Because we would have spent so much money in doing this, we may not have financial ability to invest in the climate solutions still required.
However, if we spot this problem now, and invest in zero-carbon solutions now, and require those organisations in receipt of government funding to have zero-carbon plans, then we can create a better cleaner future.
We can’t return the economy to the past – that would be a dangerous failure to our future.
Massin argued that this outbreak can be used to help the fight against climate change gather momentum, as people have now realised ‘how detrimental global crises can be’.
The activist pointed out that world leaders have repeatedly expressed their concerns for social wellness in the past few weeks, and said that if they ‘really cared’ they would ‘take action towards a better future’.
The importance of prevention has been strongly highlighted now, given the fatal repercussions we have witnessed as a result of no prior action taken.
World leaders might have had an excuse this time, as the virus was pretty sudden, but they will not be able to claim they did not know when the climate crisis kicks us in the face.
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4 MILLION ALL OVER THE GLOBE AND COUNTING! 🌏 In order: Kabul, Afghanistan; the military protected the demonstrators! 🌍 Wakiso District, Uganda: Lots of Children took to the streets to urge their government to change! 🌏 Islamabad, Pakistan: Demonstrators as far as the eye can see! 🌎 São Carlos, Brazil: impossible not to notice these strikers as they made their way through the streets! 🌏🌍🌎 Photos: unknown, SadrachNirere on twitter, AmmarRashidT on twitter, @niloteixeira11 via @fridaysforfuture_sanca
As I mentioned earlier, climate change is not the direct reason we are being encouraged to stay home at this time – that is a result of the virus. However, it is possible that climate change could be an indirect reason for the outbreak, or the reason behind future ones.
Professor Siegert said:
We are uncertain how a warming world will affect transmission of infectious diseases, but this is something to consider and explore.
However, more of a concern is the destruction of natural habitats and the exposure of animals in such places to humans. This is a major concern, and it is quite possible that our destruction of rain forests has made us far more exposed to viruses that we are not used to.
Now is the perfect time for governments and companies to be implementing strategies that will allow them to recover in an environmentally friendly manner, while members of the public can do their part by staying educated and joining the action against climate change.
Thinking about the climate crisis right now might seem difficult, but it is vital if we want to be able to go back to enjoying life to the full not only after lockdowns end, but for generations to come. Ultimately, climate change impacts everyone, and taking it into consideration now can help ensure that global issues like the outbreak don’t become a common occurrence in the future.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]