The phrase “times are hard” might be a bit of an understatement lately.
We currently find ourselves in the middle of a raging COVID-19 pandemic, one that has personally touched many of us, either directly through illness or through its aftershocks. During this time, we are also experiencing an overload of information related to the virus. Whether it is through traditional news channels or through social media, the grim statistics, stories about systemic cracks and public health mishaps are inescapable.
However, there is also another, more positive storyline that has emerged lately – one of environmental triumphs. With global economy at a standstill, some may argue that the “earth healing itself”.
Just this past week, satellite images from Italy have shown the impact COVID-19 has had on clearing up Venice’s iconic water canals. Similarly, in India, residents in the northern state of Punjab have, for the first time in decades, been able to see the mighty Himalayas from their windows. In China, the days with “good quality air” have increased significantly in urban centres. In many places across the world, harmful emissions like nitrogen dioxide have decreased.
All of these stories have been widely reported and circulated on social media platforms. These signs of progress should surely be celebrated, right?
While feel-good storylines about a recovering natural world and a bettering environment aim to, understandably, find a silver lining in these dark times, we should question not only their validity but also their larger impact. Instead of celebrating these environmental reports as “victories”, we must remain cautious and consider one critical question – what will happen in a post-COVID-19 crisis world, when lockdown regulations are lifted and life resumes?
While we are seeing drastic improvements in our environment and reduced rates of pollution, we need to realize that these decreases are merely temporary. When economic activities resume, we can expect these numbers to pick up again. Some experts have even suggested that due to lost time and severe economic loss, industrial activities might increase significantly in order to make up for virus-related downturns.
In a briefing this year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called 2020 “a pivotal year for how we address climate change”. Many countries around the world were supposed to implement important environmental policies and measures during this year and make strides in mitigating climate change. Unfortunately, the coronavirus crisis severely threatens and detracts from global climate change priorities and efforts.
In light of all this, it would be a thinking error to consider the virus beneficial for the environment. In fact, framing it as such, as many media reports and stories aim to do, might lead us into a false sense of security and resultant lull.
We find ourselves in an unprecedented time, a time that is rather distressing. It is natural for us to look for the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel, but unfortunately environmental salvation isn’t it.
The reality remains that climate change, irrespective of this pandemic, is still the one of the greatest issues facing humanity. It should be treated with the urgency it deserves.
Over the past couple of months, we have seen international agencies, the scientific community, governments and industries mobilize and collaborate to deal with the threat of the virus. Even everyday people, sacrificing their comfort, have shifted their routines to slow transmission. This is an incredible feat. Can you imagine the progress we could make if all these actors maintain this same resolution and urgency when addressing climate change?