COVID-19 and the environment – a brief respite or an omen?

Reduce human activity. One simple measure is proving to alleviate the crisis that has brought the world to a stand-still. A measure environmentalists have been espousing for decades. But is reducing anthropogenic activity proving the results that they expected?

In this time of paranoia and anxiety, our confirmation bias attracts us to information that provides hope and distraction. Photos and videos were shared of natural systems and animals rebounding from lack of human activity, that were then later debunked as fake news. Though the water in Venice is really not any cleaner, the air definitely is.

The decrease in industrial production, fossil fuel burning, and transport has shown to clearly correlate with reduction in air pollution and greenhouse gases. The improvement in air quality has been measured not only in countries with strict restrictions such as China and Italy, but also in Pakistan where cities such as Lahore and Karachi are frequently featured in top 5 global cities with the worst air pollution. The improvement in air quality ironically has been calculated to save more lives than Corona has taken.

Respite, though less dramatic, is also felt in other environmental issues including wildlife crime and logging. Signs continue to surface as reminders of the resilience of the natural world if humans reduce their plundering.

However, before any celebrations are to be made, it is important to note the ephemerality of these positive changes. When the world resumes its motions, and business-as-usual continues to be the mantra, the benefits will swiftly be reversed.

The benefits are also questionable in scale, as the urgent reaction needed to address Corona has meant indiscriminate production and consumption of another kind; this includes infrastructure being built in a haste without consideration for sustainability; mass production of plastic and cloth masks, plastic gloves, and travel sized plastic sanitizer bottles; overturn on of single use plastic bag bans; and a general but significant shift away from the reuse and recycle culture that was just beginning to gain some influence. Little is also known right now on what is being done for the proper disposal of hazardous medical waste and hygiene items.

More importantly, Corona has served as an omen for the global crises that will arise due to climate change. Corona has shown how interconnected and vulnerable the world is in a time of real crisis. As climate change promises to worsen in severity, the crisis in the years to come will dwarf what we are currently experiencing. This is the time for companies to stand up and proactively work on reducing their carbon footprint.

Moving forward, as the private sector adjusts to the changes brought on by Corona, it also has the urgent opportunity to pursue environmental stewardship and sustainable development. Through tweaking business models towards sustainability, companies can help to alleviate the current crisis and build resilience for combating future crises. The world post COVID-19 looks uncertain, but we can do our best now to ensure our future is green and peaceful.