Opportunity from Darkness...COVID's Environmental Impact: Part 2
Despite the second wave of lockdown measures being enforced across the UK, last week finally brought positive news that a 94.5% effective COVID-19 vaccine has been greenlit! Now that we FINALLY have a roadmap back to normality, we have reached a pivotal point in our recovery from this pandemic. Will we relax and fall into old bad habits? Or will we choose better this time, and build back greener? We are at a crossroads, and choosing correctly to maintain the positive changes arisen from this otherwise historically dismal year, can lead to true revolution. Allow us to explain...
Now onto the fun part. Having last week explored the negative impacts on the environment from coronavirus-related waste, NOW we get to bask in the positivity of the flip side. Because what’s positive without negative anyway? Who doesn’t love a silver lining that makes up the majority? Without being insensitive to the devastation caused by the pandemic, we wish to help those of you struggling or looking for optimism in these often dark times to see that there is goodness in the world - and even from something so overtly negative, opportunities can and will arise. Without further ado, let’s get into it 😍
① An opportunity for permanently reduced air pollution
Decreased movement and economic activity in town centres due to the sudden disruption of the coronavirus has, without being insensitive, had its benefits. Although no one would have chosen for the entire world economy to essentially shut down - noticeable and effectual improvements in air quality have been distinct. The overnight revolution of at home working and tech, extended further and permanently, can have huge environmental benefits, for both humans and wildlife. With less people travelling into town centres for work and more business being conducted remotely, the reduction in fumes from cars, buses, trains and airplanes will keep pollution levels lower for the foreseeable future in many of the usually bustling cities of the world. Out with the evident benefit to our own health, the same has also proven true for our much neglected bumble bees. An insect whose populations have been dwindling for years, they have been handed a reprieve by way of reduced movement, and consequently reduced air pollution. They are coming back in numbers - able to pollinate, harvest and reproduce more freely with grass and roadside weeds being uncut by councils.
While prolifically smog-covered capitals such as New Delhi, India are in danger of relapsing to pre-COVID levels quickly (despite an initial reprieve during global lockdowns), this is not the case worldwide. Major cities including Sydney, Hong Kong, London, Rome and even New Delhi have seen significant reductions in their air pollution levels post-lockdown when compared to pre-lockdown levels. Though the drastic improvement in air quality seen at peak lockdown (when the Himalayas could be seen from India for the first time in 30 years) was always going to be somewhat temporary, there is potential for long-lasting change. The technologies and ways of working COVID has forcibly seen implemented has essentially given worldwide economies a fast-pass to sustainability that will become ordinary when electric vehicles become standard (perhaps by 2030). Businesses now have proof that home-working works, and the ability to choose freely. Of course, as with all change, there will be consequences to the way things were, but in the long-term interest of our planet - home working and remote practices could be revolutionary for air quality.
② An opportunity for human-wildlife unity
As you may have seen online or experienced first-hand - wildlife around the world is venturing further inland as a result of lockdowns, home-working and overall reduced movement in usually bustling areas. The reduction in human mobility, at both land and sea, is unparalleled in recent history, and with any areas that become abandoned by humans, plants, animals and biodiversity is returning; a timely reminder that we share this earth with creatures other than ourselves. From boars, goats and deer, to dolphins and turtles, animals who would usually show constraint due to a rationalised fear of humans are feeling more confident to share our earth. They are appearing in numbers and in areas unseen for decades. Turtles have been spotted relaxing along the coastline of India in their hundreds, undisturbed by human interference. In east London, a herd of 100 deer moved into a park on a housing estate.
Now dolphins aren't quite swimming the canals of Venice (falsified reports you may remember from early in the pandemic) but evidence from times of peak lockdowns show just how little it takes for their confidence to return, and a reminder how close they are to the lives we live - scared to come any closer. Of course, some species such as rats and foxes that have grown reliant on our leftovers have had to venture from their usual city living to find respite elsewhere. But as the saying goes, “Life tends to find a way”, and just as they have grown to adapt their habits to human behaviours, they will adjust to the new normal too.
Maybe, when the dust settles, this pandemic can be recontextualised as a rebirth. A reality check of our overbearing stretch over all living organisms and resources. If we are to aspire to David Attenborough’s pledge that we must “rewild the world”, has COVID-19 not just given us the evidence of how quickly this could be achieved if we just cared a little more for all life on our beautiful planet? Perhaps, there lies a chance for us to integrate the animal kingdom into our own - and not by putting them in zoos for our entertainment but to alter land-use and give space back to nature. An interesting proposition could be to develop safe underpasses below busy roads to allow animals to transition safely and avoid becoming roadkill. Perhaps we could also provide feeding areas for ‘pest’ animals rather than simply viewing them as a nuisance when they are just trying to maintain life like the rest of us. For bees and other insects, perhaps we could designate areas within our busy cities where they can pollinate and collect nectar - so they can thrive with us.
③ An opportunity for ocean biodiversity
In addition to sea life swimming more freely, undisturbed by cruise-boats and over-fishing, the benefit of reduced human intervention has extended to plant life too. Coral reefs, which not so long ago were the picturesque tourist attractions of the deep, have lost much of their colour and beauty in the last 20 years. This isn't just a problem for capturing colourful Instagram photos of their underwater beauty - the world's reefs are central to the biodiversity of our oceans, crucial for the livelihoods of millions of people and even offer hope for new drugs to treat cancer and other diseases. Damage from climate change induced rising temperatures, over-tourism and light pollution from increasingly urbanised, artificially lit harbours have disrupted their reproductive cycles to devastating effect, leaving behind the skeletons of a more colourful beforetime...Yet one summer with massively reduced numbers of tourists, cruise liners and commercial boats - coral reefs and plant life across the ocean is being afforded the unprecedented time to grow and repair naturally. Conservationists are also being afforded the time to test and study undisturbed ocean life, giving them a renewed chance to kickstart the battle to save corals from extinction with projects like The Coral Reef Alliance and Australia’s Coral Nurture Programme. The latter, which had pre-COVID aimed to rebuild poor parts of the reef through breeding with healthier parts of the reef, can operate uninterrupted, able to prepare avidly for the return of tourists.
The novel coronavirus has helped the world press pause - and with it reassess our impact on our earth. With this perspective - focus can turn to how we can reduce our impact. Perhaps, by providing jobs in protecting reefs instead of encouraging overfishing. By detailing plans to expand marine national parks to protect areas of ocean and coral at particular risk. By setting better controls or caps on tourism at any one time to protect the biodiversity of our oceans that corals are so important in maintaining. Governments and ocean authorities must now begin to think how they can sustainably reintroduce tourism so not to undo any progress, while putting sustainability benchmarks in place to prompt future improvements too.
If you are planning a visit to the Great Barrier Reef when this virus finally passes - here are some quick tips: try to avoid touching coral with your hands or feet so you don’t accidently damage the delicate coral polyps, and if you are on a boat dropping anchor, ensure to look for a sandy spot not atop the reefs so as to avoid damaging them.
④ An opportunity to reflect
The unprecedented ‘pause’ the coronavirus has afforded the human race also comes with an opportunity to reflect on our impact as a species, on the beautiful blue planet we call home. Reflection through quantification and study of the effects our activities have on wildlife and the environment. Right now, we are the midst of a vitally important time in history that we may never be afforded again. A time when everything is abnormal, and yet is setting new standards for sustainability. Post-COVID, we have the opportunity to reflect and implement change that strives for these new benchmarks of sustainability.
Take the blue economy for example. The virus has wreaked havoc on every industry under its discipline; from fishing; to tourism; to maritime transport. However, from the darkness, with reflection on how nigh on unrecoverable it had become pre-COVID, the notoriously “poorly-policed, untamed frontier” has the chance to achieve a sustainable blue recovery by rethinking fishing subsidies, mainstreaming sustainable coastal tourism and digitising maritime transport procedures. As perfectly outlined by the United Nations:
“Mass tourism has placed huge pressure on some of the planet’s richest and most fragile ecosystems – like mangroves and coral reefs – and industrial fishing has left about 34% of global fish stocks below biologically sustainable levels. The COVID-19 crisis offers an opportunity to turn this around as we rebuild.”
With study, improvements and rethinks to policies, and directing focus on rebuilding better - across not just the blue economy but with green innovation as a whole - we have a unique, historic opportunity we would not have been otherwise afforded if not for the coronavirus' interception. An opportunity to build upon the short-term improvements, to make them permanent.
HOW DO WE SUM UP THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT, OVERALL?
Only time will tell how important the pandemic-induced 'pause' on our lives will be for the environment. If we, as a species, choose to take the correct lessons from an otherwise dismal year; deal with the growing COVID-accelerated medical waste problem swiftly and focus on the opportunities this unprecedented time to reflect has afforded us, COVID-19 can be a jumping off point for true change. One thing is for sure - the overall impact of COVID-19 on the world will stand as a history altering event the likes of which we have not seen in decades. It’s environmental impact could stand in time alongside it for the right reasons - if we make it.
We now reach an impasse. An opportunity from the darkness that has been COVID-19 (and by association, this year). An opportunity to make the right decisions this time around. Will we again turn a blind eye, or finally come to understand that our sprawling impact upon our earth's creatures and resources must come under control? The coronavirus has caused an abundance of death, depression and depravity, but perhaps from the darkness we can view our earth through a new lens. One of positivity. One of possibility. One, of unity.
We're a positive minded brand. It's literally the reason behind our strive to make sustainability accessible to everyone. We want to help bring you eco-products and sustainable thoughts you may not have been otherwise aware of. A beacon of hope in these ever-uncertain times. Our recovery as a species will be what we choose to make of it - at ReLove we aim to bring sustainability to conversation and help us build back better. Peace ✌