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Climate Action: The Unlikely Beneficiary of Coronavirus

Impossible view of Mt. Kenya captured from Kilimani, Nairobi; attributed to a decrease in air pollution following the Covid-19 lockdown/ Osman Siddiqi

With a soaring infection rate, growing death toll and widespread lockdowns which are shutting down entire economies and costing people their jobs, it is hard to see any positive side of the coronavirus pandemic. However, it seems the lockdown has had an unintended benefit – blue skies.

Satellite images released by NASA and the European Space Agency show a dramatic reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions – those released by vehicles, power plants and industrial facilities – in major Chinese cities between January and February. The visible cloud of toxic gas hanging over industrial powerhouses almost disappeared.

Pollution levels in China in 2019, left, and 2020. Photograph: ESA satellite data

While not a greenhouse gas itself, the pollutant originates from the same activities and industrial sectors that are responsible for a large share of the world’s carbon emissions and that drive global heating.

One expert said the sudden shift represented the “largest scale experiment ever” in terms of the reduction of industrial emissions.

The exponential growth of the coronavirus pandemic also teaches us a valuable lesson about the perils of ignoring destructive processes—and perhaps even larger, longer-term disasters—that increase exponentially.

Aside from the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest, most destructive exponential growth processes that we must grapple with today are those associated with global climate change.

“If we can think about how to prepare for climate change like a pandemic, maybe there will be a positive outcome to all of this,” says Christopher Jones, lead developer of the CoolClimate Network, an applied research consortium at the University of California, Berkeley. “We can help prevent crises in the future if we are prepared. I think there are some big-picture lessons here that could be very useful.”

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