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Today is World Earth Day, and this year’s theme is climate action. Countries are expected to strengthen their commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change. COVID-19, however, is teaching us other lessons.
Our world is experiencing an unprecedented crisis.
Daily deaths are in the thousands as numbers of COVID-19 infections rise. Most countries have implemented lockdown measures to slow the spread of the virus. Most industries are not producing, most vehicles are not transporting and most airlines are not flying.
The impacts of the shutdown are being felt by every country, albeit some much more than others.
Some are also highlighting that, as industry polluters remain idle amidst this pandemic, that there is a silver lining – at least in terms of the environment.
Ironically, while we are dealing with a virus that attacks the respiratory system, the impact of the global response is presenting an unexpected respite to people’s respiratory health, by reducing air pollution.
The impact on the environment
Two weeks after the UK’s nationwide lockdown was announced, the BBC reported that the region’s nitrogen oxide (NO₂) levels fell by as much as 60%, compared to this time last year. North-eastern USA reported the lowest NO₂ in the last five years – 30% lower last month compared to previous years’ monthly averages.
Nitrogen oxide is an air pollutant deriving mostly from power plants and car exhausts, and excessive NO₂ in the air increases risk of illness for people with weak lungs or hearts.
Over half a billion people across China have been under lockdown. The country’s NO₂ emission exceeds 30 mega tonnes each year – half of Asia’s total NO₂ emissions.
Each tonne of NO₂ that is not emitted is equivalent to 62 less cars from the roads every year. China’s emissions in January and February of 2020 dropped by 40% compared to last year. This is equal to taking more than 192,000 cars off the road.
There are now many examples like this across the world.
In Bangladesh, Dhaka usually averages 168 in the air quality index. The capital had a score of 73 last week.
It should not take a global pandemic to produce these results. Better water and air quality means healthier lives, and re-orienting priorities and actions will help us achieve these vital conditions for healthier, better lives.
World Earth Day
Today marks 50 years since the inauguration of the day, and it is an Earth Day unlike any other.
COVID-19 is presenting the world with a new reality, demanding technological transformation, shutting down consumption and forcing a major re-orienting of our lives. We are learning about and practicing ways that could better prepare us in the face of the much bigger problem. Climate change represents the biggest challenge to the future of humanity and the life-support systems that make our world habitable.
This Earth Day, we are learning that change happens with unity, that it is possible for mass global-level change to happen, and that – if we give it a chance – the state of the environment can begin to improve rapidly. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we can learn enough from this crisis on how we can work together to tackle a much larger existential threat to the human race.
Dr Md Liakath Ali, PhD is the director of Climate Change Programme, BRAC and BRAC International and Urban Development Programme, BRAC. Tahmina Hadi is a deputy manager at Climate Change Programme, BRAC. Luba Khalili is a deputy manager at Communications, BRAC and Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh is the head of Programme and Enterprise Communications, BRAC.
BRAC’s climate change programme has taken vital information about COVID-19 to thousands of people across Bangladesh, with a particular focus on people who were already vulnerable, such as people living in remote areas and people with disabilities. BRAC staff went door-to-door, not only distributing leaflets but reading them out to people with disabilities and physically demonstrating procedures such as proper methods of hand washing.