A barren landscape laid to waste, without a shred of greenery is the beginning of most post-apocalyptic movies and novels. Perhaps that is the most predominant fear in our subconscious mind. Over the last century and a half, we as a species have devastated the planet and have exploited its natural resources. Just a few months ago, the locals in New Delhi were walking along the streets wearing masks to avoid breathing in the heavily polluted air. However, today they wear it to avoid contracting the dreaded COVID-19 while the country is on lockdown.
Despite these dreary times, the planet has seen a positive change in the natural environment. With many factories and businesses closed around the world, we have observed an impressive drop in greenhouse gas emissions. Here’s how distinct parts of nature have healed during this pandemic.
Dirty brown pollution belts over major industrial centres in countries like China, Italy, UK, etc. have shrunk. Dozens of countries have shown as much as a 40% decrease in emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, improving the air quality. New satellite images from the European Space Agency show that during late January and early February 2020, levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) over cities and industrial areas in Asia and Europe were lower than in the same period in 2019, by as much as 40%.
Two weeks after a nation-wide lockdown was announced in the UK, nitrogen dioxide emissions in some cities decreased by as much as 60% as compared to the same period of time in 2019. According to researchers in NASA, nitrogen dioxide pollution over New York and other metropolitan cities in the northeastern regions of the USA was 30% lower in March compared to the pollution from the years 2015 to 2019. Recently, Delhi-NCR (National Capital Region) witnessed a drastic fall in pollution levels. The city which usually has an AQI (Air Quality Index) that ranges from 500 to 600 saw an AQI as low as 50. For many experts, this is a glimpse of a world free of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the hopes that humans could emerge into a cleaner, healthier world will depend not on the short-term impact of the virus, but on the long-term political decisions to be made.
The sudden drop in pollution has had a positive effect on the ozone layer. With lesser emissions of greenhouse gases, we have observed a rare success in the reversal of environmental damage. The ozone layer has begun to heal! A recent paper published in Nature shows that collective global action can make a difference in healing the environment.
As levels of nitrogen dioxide and pollution have reduced drastically, the residents of Jalandhar, Punjab saw the Dhauladhar (or Dhaulagiri) mountain range in Himachal Pradesh peeking from behind the clouds despite it being over 200 kilometers away. This event recently took place for the first time in 30 years.
In 1986, initiatives to clean the River Ganga began. The same year, the Indian government launched the Ganga Action Plan 1 and spent a sizeable amount of money, Rs.48 billion, to rejuvenate the river by 2014, but they achieved nothing considerable. Since no industrial waste is being deposited in the river, it is now much cleaner today than it was in 1986. We have observed a similar case with the Yamuna. Because of a noticeable reduction in industrial pollutants and an increase in the discharge of water from Haryana to Delhi, a cleaner river is visible. Both of these factors have increased the self-purification ability of the river.
While our species is facing a lockdown, wildlife has filled the void. This year will see a much lower toll for roadkill by cars and trucks. In the UK alone, the lives of 100,00 hedgehogs, 30,000 deer, 50,000 badgers, and 100,000 foxes, barn owls, and many other species of birds and insects are taken. The cutting of grass on roadside verges, which are one of the last remaining habitats for wildflowers, has been delayed. This should bring a plethora of colours to the countryside and provide more pollen for the bees to pollinate. Coyotes which are usually timid of traffic have been spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Deer have been found grazing in Washington. D.C., a few miles from the White House.
Our species seems to have become more aware of the negative impact it has had on our natural environment. It is our duty to spread awareness of the situation globally. The first step we can take to make a better world of ourselves and the future generation is letting go of our dependence on fossil fuels and animal products, gradually shift to using renewable sources of energy and following a plant-based diet. Hopefully, post-apocalyptic movies of the future will show people still doing stupid things but on a greener planet and not something that looks like Mars!
Author: Aditi Krishnan
Editor: Arjun Krishnan