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Is nature healing itself during The Great Lockdown? Not quite

. Apr 28, 2020
Is nature healing itself during The Great Lockdown? Not quite Photo: Euan Marshall/TBR

The Covid-19 pandemic will leave an open wound on humankind which may take some time to heal. As well as the hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide, global economies are set to fall into the biggest crisis since The Great Depression. However, the vast reduction in human activity over the last two months has also thrown up some fascinating effects on our environment, which could serve as lessons for the post-Covid-19 world. The most surprising change came in the Indian state of Punjab, where the Himalayan mountain range became visible for the first time in 30 years thanks to a 33-percent reduction in pollution since India began its lockdown on March 22. News reports gushed that nature was “healing itself” as factories closed and people stopped using cars.

</p> <p>In Brazil, the notion of Mother Nature having a drastic recovery overnight was lampooned on social media, with <a href="https://twitter.com/word_newss/status/1243919452695080966">memes claiming that dolphins had been spotted</a> in São Paulo&#8217;s putrid and largely dead Tietê River.</p> <p>However, while there have been few visual impacts of reduced human activity in Brazil — besides some <a href="https://www.tempo.com/noticias/actualidade/por-que-o-por-do-sol-esta-tao-bonito-nesses-dias.html">striking sunsets</a> — official measurements show that pollution has decreased drastically in the country&#8217;s big cities. In São Paulo, the state government has noticed a <a href="https://www.saopaulo.sp.gov.br/noticias-coronavirus/poluicao-em-sao-paulo-cai-50-com-a-quarentena/">50-percent reduction</a> in air pollution levels since the beginning of social distancing measures. <a href="https://g1.globo.com/bemestar/coronavirus/noticia/2020/04/10/confinamento-diminui-poluicao-em-sp-rio-e-outros-centros-urbanos-veja-imagens-feitas-com-dados-de-satelite.ghtml">Satellite images</a> also show a dramatic change in nitrous dioxide emissions in several major cities.</p> <p>The focus on air pollution has also come with a warning related to the coronavirus pandemic, however, with one Harvard study showing <a href="https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/air-pollution-linked-with-higher-covid-19-death-rates/">a link between Covid-19 mortality and living in excessively polluted cities</a>. As far as the pandemic and Brazil&#8217;s big cities are concerned, the damage appears to have been done already.</p> <p>On a global scale, The Great Lockdown is set to push carbon emissions down by a stunning 5.5 percent this year, according to climate change website <a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-coronavirus-set-to-cause-largest-ever-annual-fall-in-co2-emissions?utm_content=buffer41382&amp;utm_medium=social&amp;utm_source=twitter.com&amp;utm_campaign=buffer">Carbon Brief</a>. However, this is not even enough to meet Paris Agreement goals, which would require emissions to fall 7.6 percent each year in order to limit the world&#8217;s temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.</p> <h2>Environmental improvements? A lot of rubbish!</h2> <p>Refuse has been another area upon which the lockdown has had a significant impact. According to the São Paulo urban sanitation authorities (Amlurb), social isolation has caused a 56-percent drop in waste swept from the city&#8217;s streets. Meanwhile, with more people at home, recycling has seen a boost, rising 25 percent.</p> <p>In an <a href="https://www.prefeitura.sp.gov.br/cidade/secretarias/subprefeituras/amlurb/noticias/?p=296560">open report,</a> Amlurb said that 4,100 tons of trash were collected in the first half of April 2019, but the same period this year saw only 1,800 tons.</p> <p>According to environmental studies expert Mackenzie University professor Magno Botelho, “we are living an involuntary laboratory experience.” However, as Brazil is not under complete lockdown, any positive conclusions are circumstantial and based on little evidence.&nbsp;</p> <p>“The environmental issue is like a short blanket on a cold night: if you pull the blanket up to warm your chest, you will be left with cold feet. That is to say, people are using less transport, burning less fuel, but they will use more detergent and produce more domestic sewage,” Mr. Botelho told <strong>The Brazilian Report.</strong></p> <p>While air quality is improving and there is a visible reduction of waste, we also have to look at the short-term effects, such as the increases in medical waste and higher expenditure of energy at home.&nbsp;</p> <p>In the Chinese city of Wuhan, the first Covid-19 epicenter, the amount of garbage grew fourfold. In Italy, which quickly became the second epicenter, doctors became literally surrounded by trash bags</p> <p>“Some indicators, such as measuring air quality, are simple. Others we can’t quantify with the same precision. We can see how the air performs in a day by measuring the incidence of particles, for example. Others, such as the increase in domestic sewage and water quality, we’ll have to wait to observe in the near future.”</p> <p>One month without cars on the street can lead to a momentaneous improvement of air quality, but a month of households washing dishes twice a day would see a marked increase of phosphorus in rivers. In terms of science, however, this relation is not linear. For instance, while restaurants are washing fewer plates, they are using more plastic to deliver food. As the expert concluded, “we&#8217;re giving the planet a break, but we don&#8217;t know what it will be like when it comes back from vacation.&#8221;

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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