COVID-19 has put the world on stand-by; indeed, individual’s lives, routines, businesses, and industries have all been put on hold since the virus was declared a pandemic by the WHO on 11th March 2020.
However, behind the tragedy and uncertainty caused by COVID-19, we have learned to appreciate two things concerning the environment: the very real impact of unclean air on the mortality rates of coronavirus, and also, a calling for action at a time when the environmental change has built momentum.
Many studies have linked the spread and death rates of COVID-19 to air pollution. Harvard University School of Public Health has identified the fine pollutant particles known as PM2.5 to directly contribute to the virus’ death toll. Air pollution also destabilises and weakens the immune system, reducing people’s ability to fight off infection, according to the European Public Health Alliance. Respiratory disease scientists have even pointed to air pollution particles as acting as vehicles for viral transmission
This is not the first time this link has been made. A study conducted in 2003 during the SARS pandemic concluded people were 84% more likely to die if they lived in areas with high levels of pollution. As lockdown starts to ease, what does this say about improving air quality is a central role in overcoming the pandemic? We have been given a second chance to build a reaction to these studies that stresses the importance of clean air to avoid similar cases in future pandemics.
Two major concerns of any schemes following the pandemic are public health and economic stability. The presence of trees in local urban areas remove 1.4 million tonnes of air pollution and save £1 billion in avoided health costs every year in the UK. Reducing air pollution may also help prevent future pandemics from being so deadly.
Greenpeace has joined a growing list of organisations demanding that the UK government puts protecting the environment at the heart of any post-COVID-19 economic stimulus. The coronavirus pandemic is a once in a lifetime opportunity to transform life, travel, and work – and these changes can be met with offsets in individual, small corporate, or large corporate initiative not just governmental policy.
Across the affected countries, cities have undergone months of total lockdown. What does this mean for the environment? The limitation of free movement has hugely disrupted and reduced the global carbon footprint. As of 1st June 2020, the UK’s global scheduled flights were down 93.6% from last year (OAG), and the UK’s car congestion, soon after the lockdown was announced, fell by 78% (TomTom). Average air pollution levels have fallen to their lowest since recordings began in 2000 (London Air Quality Network) – the environmental effect of coronavirus has been outstanding in the UK.
Under the carbon offsetting scheme put into effect by the International Civil Aviation Organization (Corsia), airlines must compensate for their future emissions by investing in forests, renewable energy, or other carbon-cutting projects. This scheme comes alongside a wave of movements upholding the momentum of the environmental renewal following COVID-19.
Whilst it is inevitable that levels of pollution will begin to bounce back with industry and travel restrictions being eased, there is no better time to support the environmental movement triggered by COVID-19. Whether it be cycling to work, holding online meetings to reduce travel, or supporting tree planting schemes like Time4Trees, now is the time as we begin to restructure society as we have the opportunity to reconsider the environment at the forefront of any post-COVID-19 society.