• Leonie Joubert for Old Mutual MindSpace

Is COVID the break our planet needs?

As coronavirus containment efforts locked close to a third of the world’s population at home in the first quarter of the year, the skies cleared above the most polluted cities. Carbon pollution rates dropped. Could this be the pause needed to slow climate change and allow the recovery of the over-pressured natural world?

It wasn’t long after South Africans were ordered to stay at home this April, to stop the spread of the coronavirus, that one of Cape Town’s most well-known tourist attractions — African penguins — took to Simon’s Town’s abandoned streets as if they owned them.

Whimsical photographs began circulating of wildlife around the globe claiming urban spaces where people usually roam. The world seemed to be re-wilding itself.

As coronavirus was declared a pandemic, air flights were grounded and highways suddenly cleared, immediately switching off a source of pollution that drives almost a quarter of the world’s carbon pollution and much of the ambient air pollution. Many polluting industries shut down and coal burning for electricity slowed.

Many cities reported the clearest skies in over a decade. But will the environmental gains during this global pause last beyond the lockdown, as governments kickstart their economies and try to recover the jobs lost in the face of the biggest financial crisis in a century?

In the air: easy come, easy go

Ambient air pollution refers to pollutants coming from vehicle tailpipes, industrial chimney stacks, power stations and households as they burn fossil fuels. Filled with ash and other particulate matter, and various toxic chemicals, this kind of pollution not only clogs the air but causes severe and potentially life-threatening respiratory illness.

Air pollution builds up quickly, but also clears quickly once the source of the pollution stops. China is already showing how quickly air pollution can return to pre-Covid levels. Once the government lifted lockdown restrictions in the province of Hubei (the original pandemic epicentre), travel resumed, industries reopened, and air pollution quickly rose.

Pandemics end; the climate crisis is here to stay

While many in the northern hemisphere were tentatively stepping out of lockdown and celebrating sunny days in June, the Artic recorded dangerously high temperatures of around 30°C. This year is expected to be amongst the five hottest on record.

The short-term dip in carbon pollution during the economic slowdown brought on by the pandemic is negligible in the long run. Early estimates are that carbon pollution will be down by about 7% this year, according to the journal Nature, if stricter pandemic containment measures last until December.

But rising global temperatures are the result of decades of accumulated pollution in the atmosphere, and slowing the momentum of global warming means not only cutting current pollution rates, but also removing pollution already in the atmosphere. Carbon pollution is now at 417 parts per million (ppm), significantly higher than the 350 ppm which scientific consensus says is the target if the global temperature is to stabilise at a ‘safe’ 1.5°C rise above pre-industrial times.

Disposable plastics for frontline healthcare

One form of pollution that hasn’t stopped during the pandemic is single-use plastics, particularly as the demand for disposable masks, gloves, gowns and bags for the health sector has ‘skyrocketed’, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).

The pandemic shows how ‘indispensable’ these products are during a crisis like this, says the WEF, particularly for public health and protecting frontline workers.

But if a vaccine is not found in the short-term, and wide use of masks and other disposable medical equipment continues, governments will need to prioritise waste-collection solutions for discarded medical waste, to avoid it adding to the already significant global plastics pollution crisis.

Where to from here?

Many countries are planning emergency stimulus packages to restart their economies. Commentators flag this as an opportunity to kickstart the kind of structural reforms necessary to slow extractive capitalism that is driving global inequality and dangerous ecological overshoot.