Coronavirus: Will nature reap the reward?
The lockdowns happening around the globe in response to the coronavirus pandemic could actually increase the speed of global warming - at least in the short term - according to a Norwich-based professor.
Dr Phillip Williamson, honorary reader at the University of East Anglia (UEA), also said the reduced carbon dioxide emissions seen since lockdown measures began should give the world another year or so to avoid a climate catastrophe.
Dr Williamson, from the UEA’s school of environmental sciences, said: “There might initially be an unwelcome increase in the rate of global warming.
“That’s because our pollution adds short-lived aerosols to the atmosphere that have a cooling effect, by reflecting sunlight.”
The pandemic has so far claimed more than 28,000 lives and thrown the global economy into disarray, leaving millions of people unemployed, in debt or with an uncertain future.
But since nations started restricting travel by road, land and sea in order to slow the transmission of the virus, the natural world has benefited.
Clear blue skies are now a regular feature of cities which a few short months ago were wreathed in smog, and seabirds and fish have returned to busy waterways such as the canals of Venice in numbers not seen in decades.
But Dr Williamson said the direct effects of the coronavirus lockdowns on the environment - both in Norfolk and further afield - could be difficult to determine.
He said: “The main immediate effect is improved air quality. That will benefit wildlife as well as ourselves.
“But if there are noticeable changes in abundance in the weeks and months ahead, cause and effect may be hard to prove. That because we have just had the warmest, and one of the wettest, winters ever - with many, but not all, wild plants and animals flourishing as a result.There are, of course, long term environmental implications.
“Will we still go ahead with HS2, road building schemes such as completing the NDR to the A47, extra runways and airports, etc?
“Even if demand returns for national and international travel, which is far from certain, can the country afford to?
“Will government support to industry be based on strengthening environmental protection - a great opportunity to do so - or relaxing those constraints?
Dr Williamson said the most important change brought by the pandemic could be to public attitudes.
He said: “Four fundamental changes in the way we think have already happened, and seem likely to intensify: awareness that society is fragile; realisation that values are more important than costs; recognition that events in one part of the world can affect us all; and appreciation of the need for scientific knowledge to guide actions in time of emergencies.”
Dr Williamson said these changes applied as much to the environment as to disease prevention. He said: “Global warming has as much - or more - potential to disrupt our lives as the coronavirus. For both threats, the poorest are most vulnerable.
“However, severity of impacts can be much reduced by co-ordinated, preventative action.”
Data from roadside monitoring sites in some UK cities has revealed drops in key pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and tiny particles known as PM2.5, which comes from road transport, industry and fuel burning.
PM2.5 was linked to 130 deaths of people aged 25 and over in Norwich during 2017, research earlier this year revealed.
Professor James Lee from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) said: “These are the two air pollutants that have the biggest health impacts on people.
“From our analysis, pollution levels are clearly lower than the average of the previous five years. I would expect them to drop even further over the coming weeks.
“We will continue to analyse the data and potentially take in more sites to build a bigger, more accurate picture of the situation.”
The data will need to be carefully analysed to pinpoint the exact cause of the decline, the scientists warn, as many things can affect air pollution, including local weather, new regulations and human activity.
Dr Williamson said after the pandemic, scientists had a big job ahead of them investigating the effects of the lockdowns on the environment.
He said: “Whatever the outcome, this unplanned ‘experiment’ in emission reduction will greatly improve our understanding of how the climate works, and how it is affected by our actions.”
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