Slowdown of human activity was too short to reverse years of destruction, but we saw a glimpse of post-fossil fuel world.
When lockdown began, climate scientists were horrified at the unfolding tragedy, but also intrigued to observe what they called an “inadvertent experiment” on a global scale. To what extent, they asked, would the Earth system respond to the steepest slowdown in human activity since the second world war?
Environmental activists put the question more succinctly: how much would it help to save the planet?
Almost one year on from the first reported Covid case, the short answer is: not enough. In fact, experts say the pandemic may have made some environmental problems worse, though there is still a narrow window of opportunity for something good to come from something bad if governments use their economic stimulus packages to promote a green recovery.
During the northern hemisphere spring, when restrictions were at their strictest, the human footprint softened to a level not seen in decades. Flights halved, road traffic in the UK fell by more than 70%. Industrial emissions in China, the world’s biggest source of carbon, were down about 18% between early February and mid-March – a cut of 250m tonnes. Car use in the United States declined by 40%. So light was humankind’s touch on the Earth that seismologists were able to detect lower vibrations from “cultural noise” than before the pandemic.
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