Victor J. Blue / The New York Times

An empty Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on April 5, 2020.

April 21, 2020

The Earth During a Pandemic

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As people continue to huddle indoors, avoiding their usual daily commute to work and school, it is inevitable that humans’ dramatic new relationship with the world would have a major impact on the state of the environment.

In honor of Earth Day, Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and evolutionary biology, explained how the Earth has changed since people have stopped going outside — and how we can continue to prioritize sustainability and reduce carbon emissions in a post-pandemic world.

One unintentional consequence of stay-at-home orders has been a drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions around the world. As containment measures cut workday commutes and weekend getaways to near nonexistence, air pollution in New York City alone dropped by nearly 50 percent compared to this time last year.

“What people don’t realize is that air pollution comes overwhelmingly from burning fossil fuels, and we are burning a lot less fossil fuels because we’re traveling less,” Howarth said. “Now, of course, COVID-19 is not the way you’d want to accomplish that, but it demonstrates how much cleaner we could make our cities.”

According to Howarth, an improvement in air quality could better serve not only the environment, but also public health in major cities, as high air pollution could make people more susceptible to COVID-19.

However, experts such as Inger Andersen, head of the United Nations Environment Programme, strongly caution against viewing this change as a silver lining for the environment.

“Visible, positive impacts are but temporary, because they come on the back of tragic economic slowdown and human distress,” Andersen wrote in a UN News editorial.

Rather, Howarth emphasized that this temporary change is proof that society has the ability to reduce air pollution and enact longer-term environmental change for the future.

“We can see the benefits of [a cleaner atmosphere], and the better way to get there is to simply embrace [a transition to] renewable energy,” Howarth said.

According to Howarth, this systematic overhaul of fossil fuel infrastructure is long overdue, and is perhaps the only way to transform a temporary reduction of greenhouse gas emissions into longer-lasting improvement of the environment.

Howarth noted that renewable energy is not only an asset to environmental health, it could also be a boon for the economy. It is now cheaper to build wind and solar plants than continue running coal-fired power plants — especially in the face of plummeting oil prices.

As a result, Howarth said, now might be an opportune time to pull society into the age of renewable energy.

“Our fossil fuel resources are worthless at the moment. Society has a choice — we can either bail out the oil and gas industry…or, we can buy them out, and manage the fossil fuels into an orderly transition to a renewable future. I would propose we think seriously about doing the latter as part of our recovery from COVID-19,” Howarth explained.

But the costs of the fossil fuel industry aren’t just captured by stock markets and oil prices. In researching the wide-ranging effects of renewable energy, Howarth said that reducing air pollution could further reduce costs from air pollution-related health issues.

“The costs in terms of people dying prematurely due to the air pollution … were very high,” Howarth said. “Certainly if you place any cost whatsoever on climate change and the human health [costs due to] air pollution, it makes sense to move as quickly as we possibly can to a fossil-fuel free future.”

Although the pandemic might have temporarily caused positive changes for the atmosphere, the production of medical and hazardous wastes has drastically increased, with healthcare workers rapidly going through medical supplies and personal protective equipment to handle surges of COVID-19 patients.

Disposal of these wastes could be a hazard to both public health and the environment, according to Howarth.

“We need to protect the frontline healthcare professionals who are bravely dealing with this crisis, and…give them all the protective gear they can have, while also thinking carefully about how we dispose of that,” Howarth said.

According to Howarth, some proposals have suggested the incineration of medical wastes, though he is against these measures because it would only exacerbate the issue of air pollution.

“Perhaps for some of the single-use gowns and things, we could compost or do something more creative, providing that we take public health into consideration,” Howarth said.

Microbiology studies have shown that climate change, natural events and human factors all converge to promote the emergence of zoonotic diseases. Statistical models of malaria transmission, for instance, have demonstrated that small temperature fluctuations could induce drastic increases in transmission of the disease.

Despite evidence of a link between human health and climate change, the Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a relaxation of environmental regulations, citing the need to offer leeway for businesses and factories that are enduring intense economic hardship hardship.

“I think it’s nearly criminal to relax those air pollution standards in the face of the pandemic,” Howarth said. “There’s no reason to have relaxed [them]. Quite the contrary, we know that air pollution from burning fossil fuels makes people more vulnerable to COVID-19, and makes the damage [and death rate] from COVID-19 higher … the science behind that is pretty strong.”

While the devastating consequences of climate change may appear to be far down the line, Howarth said that the pandemic should serve to emphasize the importance of trusting science, planning ahead and preparing for inevitable catastrophes that could happen in the future.

“The scientific community has been predicting for decades that there is a high risk of a pandemic … yet our society is clearly woefully unprepared for it … I’m hoping we’ll generalize that [need for planning and preparation] to climate change,” Howarth said. “Let’s not be caught by surprise when we have increasingly devastating consequences from climate change in another decade or two.”

However, according to Howarth, there is reason to be optimistic — with the recent passing of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, New York is on track to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent within the next ten years, and by 85 percent within the next thirty years.

“That’s about the most ambitious climate [legislation] of any government, anywhere in the world. If we can actually do that…it would be good for our economy, certainly good for our public health…It’s an achievable target,” Howarth said.