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World marks 50th anniversary of Earth Day amid ‘green’ Covid-19 lockdown

Newly-hatched loggerhead and green turtles swim into the sea in the Mansouri reserve south of Beirut on August 29, 2018.
Newly-hatched loggerhead and green turtles swim into the sea in the Mansouri reserve south of Beirut on August 29, 2018. AFP - MAHMOUD ZAYYAT

The world on Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in an unprecedented lockdown due to the coronavirus crisis. Confinement has led to a massive drop in emissions across the world and can help scientists understand exactly how much of climate change is man-made.

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An unplanned grand experiment is changing Earth. As people across the globe stay home to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, the air and seas have cleaned up, at least temporarily. Smog has stopped choking New Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world, and India’s getting views of sights not visible in decades. Nitrogen dioxide pollution in the northeastern United States is down 30 percent. Rome air pollution levels from mid-March to mid-April were down 49 percent from a year ago. Stars seems more visible at night.

People are also noticing animals in places and at times they don’t usually. Coyotes have meandered along downtown Chicago’s Michigan Avenue and near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. A puma roamed the streets of Santiago, Chile. Goats took over a town in Wales. In India, already daring wildlife has become bolder with hungry monkeys entering homes and opening refrigerators to look for food.

As much of the world has spent weeks, if not months, in lockdown in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Earth has become both cleaner and wilder.

“It is giving us this quite extraordinary insight into just how much of a mess we humans are making of our beautiful planet,” conservation scientist Stuart Pimm of Duke University said. “This is giving us an opportunity to magically see how much better it can be.”

Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, assembled scientists to assess the ecological changes happening with so much of humanity housebound. Scientists, stuck at home like the rest of us, say they are eager to explore unexpected changes in weeds, insects, weather patterns, noise and light pollution. Italy’s government is working on an ocean expedition to explore sea changes from the lack of people.

“In many ways we kind of whacked the Earth system with a sledgehammer and now we see what Earth’s response is,” Field says.

How much of it is manmade?

Researchers are tracking dramatic drops in traditional air pollutants, such as nitrogen dioxide, smog and tiny particles. These types of pollution kill up to 7 million people a year worldwide, according to the Health Effects Institute.

Compared to the previous five years, March air pollution is down 46 percent in Paris, 35 percent in Bengaluru, India, 38 percent in Sydney, 29 percent in Los Angeles, 26 percent in Rio de Janeiro and 9 percent in Durban, South Africa, NASA measurements show.

"The sudden drop in emissions, like other drops in the past, will allow us to figure out how fast the planet can recover," Edson Ramirez, a glaciologist at the University of San Andres in La Paz, where the lockdown has resulted in a 90 percent drop in road traffic, told FRANCE 24. It is important to know, because the numbers can allow the scientific community to understand how much of an effect human activity can have in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’re getting a glimpse of what might happen if we start switching to non-polluting cars,” NASA atmospheric scientist Barry Lefer said.

‘Fight against climate change is possible’

For some environmentalists, the reduction in road, air and maritime traffic is a sign that fighting climate change is far more possible than what many world leaders have previously let on. "What's happened kind of overnight or in a matter of days in light of the Covid-19 has really demonstrated that there is a lot more capacity for society to change very quickly and right now we need society to change quickly and positively to tackle the climate crisis,” said climate activist and cyclist Mike Elm.

In a message for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged governments worldwide to use their economic responses to the coronavirus pandemic to tackle the “even deeper emergency” of climate change.

So far, massive economic stimulus packages launched by the United States, China and European governments in light of the coronavirus have focused mainly on staunching the damage to existing industries and staving off the threat of a global depression.

Nevertheless, in the past week, ministers from Germany, France and other EU members have signalled their support for subsequent interventions to align with climate goals.

In an early example of governments linking post-virus rescue packages to climate goals, Austrian environment minister Leonore Gewessler said last week that state aid for Austrian Airlines should support climate policy targets.

Conditions could include a significant reduction in short-haul flights, the use of eco-friendly jet fuel and adjustments to the flight tax, a ministry spokesman said.

Guterres said governments should use their fiscal firepower to drive a shift from “the grey to green” economy.

”Where taxpayers’ money is used to rescue businesses, it needs to be tied to achieving green jobs and sustainable growth,” Guterres said.

”Public funds should be used to invest in the future, not the past, and flow to sustainable sectors and projects that help the environment and the climate.”

Sea turtles nest

Cleaner air on the back of the lockdowns has been most noticeable in India and China. On April 3, residents of Jalandhar, a city in north India’s Punjab, woke up to a view not seen for decades: snow-capped Himalayan peaks more than 100 miles away.

The greenhouse gases that trap heat and cause climate change stay in the atmosphere for 100 years or more, so the pandemic shutdown is unlikely to affect global warming, says Breakthrough Institute climate scientist Zeke Hausfather. Carbon dioxide levels are still rising, but not as fast as last year.

Aerosol pollution, which doesn’t stay airborne long, is also dropping. But aerosols cool the planet so NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt is investigating whether their falling levels may be warming local temperatures for now.

In Adelaide, Australia, police shared a video of a kangaroo hoping around a mostly empty downtown, and a pack of jackals occupied an urban park in Tel Aviv, Israel.

For sea turtles across the globe, humans have made it difficult to nest on sandy beaches. The turtles need to be undisturbed and emerging hatchlings get confused by beachfront lights, David Godfrey, executive director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, said.

But with lights and people away, this year’s sea turtle nesting so far seems much better from India to Costa Rica to Florida, Godfrey says.

“There’s some silver lining for wildlife in what otherwise is a fairly catastrophic time for humans,” he says.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)

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