The Covid-19 pandemic is creating undeniably miserable conditions for human populations, with the worst impacts likely still to come for many regions. It is unclear what the virus’ long-term climate legacy will be. But if the 2008 recession is any indication of how governments will respond, economic stimulus plans, like the ones being rolled out by the US government, will likely surge carbon emissions and make climate action all the more difficult to attain in the short time that the climate emergency demands to avoid catastrophic and irreversible warming.
For the moment, however, emissions are dropping as a result of the ‘stay home’ order issued by world leaders. Waterways are cleaner and air quality improvements are detectable from space. Geoscientists say that seismic indicators, which can normally detect the thrum of human activity, are so quiet that the creaking of some potentially dangerous faults may be detected better than ever. In the Northern Hemisphere, people are wondering if the birds this spring are especially loud, or if it’s just that human pace has slowed enough to notice.
Amid the devastation wrought by coronavirus, some observers have taken notice of the co-benefits of the shutdown––particularly those in areas where there was once a view obscured by air pollution. The following tweets show the elation of people in glacier regions with clean air and clear views of glacierized peaks:
Whoa! Lockdown had done wonder! This morning view from Shaheen Bagh, Delhi. It’s so clean that you can see Trishul Peaks of Himalaya from that CAA Protest site. Just incredible! pic.twitter.com/3jsQCX7pbX— Paresh Rawal fan (@Babu_Bhaiyaa) April 5, 2020
Preliminary estimates by Carbon Brief suggest 2020 could be the largest ever single-year drop in carbon dioxide emissions––1,600m tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2)––four percent of the world’s 2019 total.
The COVID lockdown in Punjab, India has improved air quality so much that the Himalayan range is visible from Jalandhar for the first time since World War II. 😮https://t.co/BggDYvUWzt— 𝔻𝕣. 𝔸𝕟𝕕𝕣𝕖𝕒 ℝ𝕒𝕞𝕤𝕖𝕪 (@ramseyandrea) April 5, 2020
In India, residents report seeing the stars for the first time in years and a daytime sky hue of blue not seen in decades.
“We can see the snow-covered #mountains clearly from our roofs. And not just that, stars are visible at night. I have never seen anything like this in recent times.”#pollution #himalaya #india #AirQuality #MotherNature https://t.co/Oqi8EV4OsI— Mari Kärkkäinen (@MariKarkkainen) April 8, 2020
The Weather Network said a view of the Himalayan mountain chain’s Dhauladhar range is a rarity in country with a documented air quality problem. “Never seen Dhauladar range from my home rooftop in Jalandhar..never could imagine that’s possible,” said one Twitter user. People reported visibility of the mountains from 200 kilometers away.
Like much of the world, most industry in India is shut down and millions of cars are off the road due to the COVID-19 pandemic, drastically improving air quality.— The Weather Network (@weathernetwork) April 4, 2020
In Balkumari, Nepal, empty roads and the resulting clear air opened spectacular views of the Himalayas.
Mountain seen from Balkumari during the lockdown. pic.twitter.com/SeCjXnGYXD— चित्र-शब्द (@picwrds) March 28, 2020
In Pakistan, the mountains of Kashmir were visible from more than 100 kilometers, a sight residents reported not seeing in three decades.
The mountains of Kashmir 100 kms away – across the Line of Control – visible from villages in Pakistan’s Sialkot District – the last time residents were able to see this sight was 30 years ago – a lockdown in both India & Pakistan has cleansed the air to make this sight possible pic.twitter.com/nQ7YpGXAkk— omar r quraishi (@omar_quraishi) April 5, 2020
The skies are bluer than usual, American meteorologist and climate journalist Eric Holthaus recently noted for The Correspondent. The coronavirus pandemic is nothing to root for, as many have pointed out, but Holthaus noted the disease has made “an indictment of the status quo.”
His comment points to the deeper issue of environmental justice. “Millions of people die from air pollution every year, and that is absolutely not inevitable,” Holthaus said. In the US, areas of more intense air pollution are being linked to a higher Covid-19 serious infection and death rate––the same zones inhabited by greater concentrations of people of color. The New York Times reported that the cited study “could have significant implications for how public health officials choose to allocate resources like ventilators and respirators as the coronavirus spreads.” It also has dire implications for communities around the world with poor air quality as the disease spreads.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated air pollution is being correlated to a higher Covid-19 rate of serious infection and death. Data indicates there is a statistically significant link between the two, not a direct correlation.