The recent COVID-19 pandemic locking down hundreds of millions of people down around worldwide has brought an unexpected consequence. It is giving people a glimpse of what a cleaner world looks likes. Even though this pandemic comes at a very high cost, the lockdown has allowed our planet to breathe for a moment, by momentarily reducing the strain humans place on the environment.
The COVID-19 lockdown has improved air quality around the world. The drop in cars on the roads, the decline of airplanes flights, and some shutdown of industrial activities have all lead to fewer emissions, reducing air pollution. This was most evident from satellite imagery of cities taken during the lockdown and compared to images taken at the same time of previous years. One of the noticeable drops in air pollution levels could be seen in the city of Wuhan, China. According to NASA, nitrogen dioxide levels across eastern and central China have been 10-30% lower than normal. CO2 emissions have also dropped by 25% according to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air. Smog has dropped to a 20-year low in India. In Italy where the country went into lockdown on 9 March, NO2 levels in Milan and other parts of northern Italy have fallen by about 40% as per Copernicus Atmosphere Service. This decrease in greenhouse gases will not have a direct impact on climate change because it is very short-lived. But more importantly, it showed us with actual numbers that by modifying our business-as-usual practices, we can be on our way to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In addition to improvement in air quality, water quality within some cities is also starting to improve due to the relief of pressure that tourists place on their infrastructure and water bodies.
However, it is not all good news. The increased use of single-use masks and gloves means increased medical waste, which poses a danger all its own. Most masks and gloves used by regular citizens are disposed of with regular waste and not treated with the same level of care as they would be in hospitals. As COVID-19 can infect people without showing any symptoms, some of this waste might carry the virus and transmit it if not controlled. Also considering solid waste, while not as potentially hazardous, there has been a surge in the amount of household garbage as people increasingly shop online and order meals to be delivered, which come with a lot of packaging.
On the other hand, one must not look only at the direct impacts of COVID-19, as the indirect impacts are expected to linger for a long time. The pandemic altered various routines whether at the individual level, the business and organization level, or the government level for the better in my opinion. We have witnessed transformational changes that did not appear possible just weeks ago. We are hearing more and more about Zoombomb, working from home, online learning, and virtual meetings or conferences. It all means these pandemic-enforced online practices where innovation and higher reliance on computers, communication, and automation are needed, are here to stay. These are sustainable practices that bring about proven benefits to the country's development especially with the looming economic crisis. These practices are more cost-efficient, generate higher productivity, consume fewer resources, and allow people to avoid spending long hours in traffic congestion, and less polluting cars on the roads, something the world appreciated lately. Take for example Twitter, which has recently announced that they will allow their 4600 employees to work from home forever. Other companies are following suit worldwide.
In Lebanon, online teaching and learning had previously not been encouraged at all. So far, the Ministry of Higher Education does not certify an online degree even one from top universities around the world. With the massive move to and normalization of online teaching, things cannot and will not go back to the way they used to be.
Other cases involve e-government, where governmental transactions can be completed online without the need to visit the offices in person. Governmental services in countries that have already established e-government practices, like the UAE, have operated almost normally and been least affected by the pandemic.
One thing for sure, things will not go back to normal after this pandemic, cities, and governments have all realized the urgency of resilience planning, at the social, economic, organizational, and environmental levels. Our government should ensure investments go to infrastructure projects that are sustainable, technologically advanced, and resilient. The people also have a role to pressure decision-makers to not let short-term solutions divert them from addressing longer-term risks like climate change.
Dr. Dima Jawad
Associate Professor, Civil Engineering, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, and member of Working Group VI: Transportation, NDU Environmental Sustainability Task Force