Last Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Ministry reported that the concentration of nitrogen dioxide in the air had decreased 30% from March 12-16 compared with the period between January 1 and March 11.
A few days earlier, the first wave of restrictive measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak were implemented by the authorities.
Even though other factors might have contributed to the decrease of the pollutant, including a change in weather conditions, nitrogen-dioxide levels are directly impacted by human activities such as transportation and industries, and it is plausible that the decrease is the result of hundreds of thousands of Israelis staying home, the ministry said.
Since the beginning of the outbreak, scientists have registered a decrease in air-pollution levels in all the areas in the world that are undergoing lockdowns. For example, according to data by NASA quoted by the Guardian, nitrogen-dioxide levels in central and eastern China are down 10%-30% compared with last year, while in northern Italy, they have decreased by up to 40%.
Is the deadly coronavirus outbreak helping the planet’s health?
“In Israel, most air pollution derives from industries and especially from transportation,” Dr. Tamar Makov, of the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told The Jerusalem Post. “The fact that everyone is switching from driving around to working from home is creating a lot less pollution.”
“On the global level, if we talk about pollution, we are typically thinking about carbon emissions, which are mostly related to transportation, heating and food production,” she said. “Obviously, right now we are not eating less, but we are definitely consuming less in general, and there is a reduction in air travel, which is a big contributor to pollution as well.”
Makov, who has a PhD in industrial ecology from Yale University, said moving activities from in-person to online is definitely creating environmental benefits. The economic crisis, with people losing their jobs and therefore having less money, could potentially lead to a decrease in consumption and traveling, she said, “but I wouldn’t think of it as a win-win situation.”
Makov said she hoped some valuable lessons could be learned from this crisis.
“We have all this new technology available nowadays, something that was not true until a very few years ago,” she said. “We can have a 20-people class with good ways to interact with each other and a decent user interface. We can communicate really easily with colleagues abroad. All universities in Israel and many all over the world are transitioning to online learning. These phenomena can teach us a lot about how we can continue operating while choosing what are the critical elements that we have to fly or meet in person for.”
“I don’t think there is a substitute to meeting people in person, even in academia,” Makov said. “Developing personal relationships and ideas is very important. But once we all get used to employing these virtual tools, maybe we will all be more comfortable with them and consider a conference call for something that currently we would want to gather in the same room for.”
Regarding whether the reduction in air pollution will have a long-lasting impact, she said one notable change would be in human health.
“We have solid data showing that air pollution has an impact on human health,” Makov said. “In particularly polluted days, more people die. Less pollution means less people and children with asthma and so on.”
A significant impact will also be felt regarding the carbon footprint with lower carbon emissions this year.
Air pollution is not the only area on which the coronavirus crisis might have influence, Makov said. For example, Israel suffers from trash production, and it often ends up scattered in parks or on beaches. If people don’t visit these areas, they are not going to leave their garbage there, she said.
“It is similar to what happens on Yom Kippur, which is the greenest day of the year,” she said. On Yom Kippur in Israel, there are almost no vehicles on the road, the airspace is closed, and all commercial activities are halted.
“We have been reacting to this crisis with a lot of immediate action, and everyone has been pulled together to do something about it. I don’t think that climate change is so different in terms of magnitude and number of people it is going to affect. I think there is a lot to think about how we can react well to a crisis and why we are not taking action against climate change as we are against the coronavirus,” Makov said.
However, there are also some environmental risks related to the coronavirus outbreak. The Environmental Protection Ministry, for example, warned of the potential risk of spraying disinfectants on surfaces in public places because they could reach water sources, Haaretz reported.
Moreover, it is important to remain careful about what to believe. As pointed out in a report by National Geographic on Friday, some news about animals taking over cities or areas usually dominated by human beings widely circulating have been uncovered as untruthful or exaggerated.
For example, a video of a dolphin supposedly spotted in a Venice canal that went viral on social media and was later picked up by major news outlets was in reality shot at the Cagliari Port in Sardinia, thousands of kilometers away.
Another tweet claiming that swans have returned to the Serenissima lagoon did not mention that the birds actually appear around the famous lagoon quite often.