All the ways coronavirus is stopping climate change in its tracks

On Tuesday, after days of government-imposed lockdown amidst the rampant COVID-19 pandemic, Venice locals were surprised to learn they had something to celebrate.

As they looked down from their balconies, they saw something many of them had never seen in their decades living in the city.

Transparent water was flowing through their canals, and in it all manner of aquatic life.  

With so few tourists in Venice and an enforced lockdown across the city, boat traffic and pollution has eased, clearing the water and also improving air quality.

Coronavirus has ravaged Italy, with 35,713 positive cases and 2978 deaths so far - but the healing effect it's having on the environment is one bright spot in the midst of widespread tragedy.

And it's not just Italy. All around the world, extreme public health measures are causing the natural environment to flourish.

'A dramatic drop-off': China replaces smog with blue skies

China, the world's biggest polluter, was ground zero for the coronavirus outbreak.

Stringent self-isolation measures were introduced there last month, and as a result there were fewer vehicles on the roads and a major slowdown in manufacturing and industrial emissions.

The world's first case of COVID-19 was reported in Wuhan in January, which has since become the first Chinese city to experience a noticeable uptick in air quality.

Locals celebrated that rather than the thick smog that normally blankets the city, blue skies had emerged instead.

This improvement is confirmed by NASA satellite imagery, which shows it's not just in Wuhan that things are getting better, but the entire country.

All over China, the average density of tropospheric nitrogen dioxide - a toxic chemical that reduces immunity - has dropped significantly below normal levels.

Satellite imagery shows NO2 levels have fallen dramatically in the last month.
Satellite imagery shows NO2 levels have fallen dramatically in the last month. Photo credit: NASA

"This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event," said NASA air quality researcher Fei Liu.

Tens of thousands of lives saved - expert

While coronavirus has tragically claimed 3237 Chinese lives, there are some suggestions many more have been saved by the improved air quality.

One Stanford University expert, Marshall Burke, believes between 50,000 and 75,000 premature deaths have been prevented already, simply due to cleaner air across the country.

"The reductions in air pollution in China caused by this economic disruption likely saved 20 times more lives in China than have currently been lost due to infection with the virus in that country," he wrote on online scientific research platform G-Feed.

An expert says many more lives have been saved than lost in China, due to better air quality.
An expert says many more lives have been saved than lost in China, due to better air quality. Photo credit: Getty

However, Dr Burke says he doesn't want to insinuate that COVID-19 is a good thing for humanity overall.

"Does this mean pandemics are good for health? No," he said.

"Instead, it means that the way our economies operate absent pandemics has massive hidden health costs, and it takes a pandemic to help see that."

Is positive environmental change sustainable?

While many are noting the positive environmental impacts that have followed the spread of COVID-19, the International Energy Agency (IEA) isn't hopeful it'll have a lasting impact.

The global energy watchdog says reduced air travel and less industrial pollution are temporary, and likely to bounce back quickly once the threat of coronavirus passes.

"There is nothing to celebrate in a likely decline in emissions driven by economic crisis because in the absence of the right policies and structural measures, this decline will not be sustainable," said IEA executive director Fatih Birol.

With this very concern in mind, eight US Democrats signed a letter urging President Donald Trump to put conditions on greenhouse gas emission at the forefront of any financial aid deal with US airlines.

"If we give the airline and cruise industries assistance without requiring them to be better environmental stewards, we would miss a major opportunity to combat climate change and ocean dumping," the letter reads.

US President Donald Trump has rolled back America's commitment to climate change since taking office in 2016.
US President Donald Trump has rolled back America's commitment to climate change since taking office in 2016. Photo credit: Getty

Former President Barack Obama applied climate change measures when the US government bailed out GM and Chrysler in 2009, using the opportunity to enforce stricter fuel-economy rules.

However President Trump has since relaxed those rules and pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, which doesn't bode well for the chances of him introducing tough environmental measures for the air travel and cruise industries.

'Revenge pollution' may reverse positive effects

Greenpeace warns it's likely China, too, will do little to combat climate change long-term.

It says China is likely to focus all its attention on reviving the economy as quickly as possible when the coronavirus crisis eases - in turn putting a phenomenon dubbed "revenge pollution" into action.

"There might be a round of economic stimulus which would inject cheap credits to heavy industries in China," Li Shuo, senior climate policy advisor for Greenpeace East Asia, told CNN.

"As a result of that, we might see increasing pollutants and also carbon emissions in the second half of this year."

China may do whatever it takes to get its economy going again, which could reverse any positive ecological impacts.
China may do whatever it takes to get its economy going again, which could reverse any positive ecological impacts. Photo credit: Getty

But hope remains it will have a lasting impact.

"We would very much advocate for China to foster this opportunity to transform its economy, to break apart from the old," Li added.

As a country that produces a third of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, for China to reduce its ecological footprint would be a huge step to a sustainable planet.

This article was amended on March 20th to remove refences to dolphins and swans being seen in the canals of Venice. 

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