The environmental silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic 


If there is a silver lining to the global pandemic, the environment is the unexpected beneficiary. In China, carbon and nitrogen emissions dropped around 20% soon after the restrictive measures were introduced. The spread of the virus globally was followed by a remarkable decline in industrial production, energy consumption, international flights, and transport. The phenomenon of decrease in emissions and improvement of air quality followed in Europe. In mid-April, satellite images showed that nitrogenous oxide levels above the largest European metropoles and industrial areas fell around 50%. Although all our efforts are currently focused on dealing with the immediate crisis, we must not forget to keep in mind the plan for recovery. Just like this pandemic is an unprecedented event and a historical milestone, so will be our reaction and restoration. 

There are two possible paths to be followed. The first one is a fast remedy, a quick fix - restoring our economy at all costs, returning to business as usual. Bailing out and subsiding traditional industries, carbon-heavy production, combustion-based transport and thus letting our carbon footprint skyrocket once again. Car industry in Europe is already calling for the delay of climate goals and for focusing on returning to its previous state. It would be very easy to forget all the momentum that the scientific community and activism had built up before the pandemic. 

The other one is a path untraveled. Could we use this emergency as an opportunity to reflect upon our lifestyle, wastefulness, consumption habits, quantity- and intensity-oriented production? Could we use the upcoming stimulus to support more sustainable business models and ways of life? Of course, every step should be taken to prevent the suffering and wanting of vulnerable social groups from losing income to the public health measures and economy slowdown. But instead of funnelling money into restoring the economy we had, why not invest to build the economy we want? This is not business as usual. There was probably something very wrong with our usual business since it had led us to this point. 

The latter rationale was strongly emphasized by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in her speech to the European Parliament on 16 April: And it also means doubling down on our growth strategy by investing in the European Green Deal. As the global recovery picks up, global warming will not slow down. First-mover advantage will count double and finding the right projects to invest in will be key. A more modern and circular economy will make us less dependent and boost our resilience. This is the lesson we need to learn from this crisis. Investing in large scale renovation, renewables, clean transport, sustainable food and nature restoration will be even more important than before. This is not only good for our economies, itis not only good for our environment but it reduces dependency by shortening and diversifying supply chains. 

One thing is clear - this planet does not need us. The reduction of human activity is accompanied by the return of wildlife to populated areas, improvement of air quality, slow regeneration of biodiversity. It is us - humans - who desperately need this planet to survive and thrive.