(Representative pic: India Gate before and after the Covid-19 lockdown)
What about a sabbatical rest for the Earth?
Humanity can draw a valuable lesson from how corona-induced global lockdown healed the environment and brought pollution levels tumbling down. Why not to make lockdown a permanent feature? A month’s rest for earth after every six months may work wonders for our air, our water and our forests and mountains, and will bring forth very healthy generations too. So, why can’t we go for a sabbatical rest for the Earth?
By Samuel Mathai
Bhopal: The novel Coronavirus, which made its first appearance in China’s Wuhan province towards the end of 2019 and spread to 216 countries, areas or territories within a few months, has so far claimed over 3,28,000 lives and sickened around 5 million people, according to data given by the WHO.
Considering the severity of the outbreak of COVID-19 – the disease caused by a virus – which was later declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), almost all the afflicted countries have been locked-down for months.
The lockdown has led to huge loss of livelihood. The global economy is in the doldrums, stock markets have crashed, social fabric has got strained and health care system is over-stressed. On the top of that, no cure of the disease is in sight.
But every cloud has a silver lining. And in this case, the silver lining is the unintended benefits to the environment.
Because of the lockdown, experts and researchers say, there has been a considerable drop in the pollution levels, fall in emissions of greenhouse gases and improvement in air and water quality in many parts of the world. Whether it will last is anybody’s guess. But at present it is there for all to see.
Significant changes in atmosphere
As per satellite data, there were significant changes in the atmosphere of Wuhan and northern Italy between January and March 2019. In these places, lockdowns were stricter and lasted longer than elsewhere. And, the difference in Nitrous dioxide levels between 2019 and the shutdown months of 2020 are quite significant.
In the UK, as in many other places, the available satellite data does not yet show whether reduction in economic activity has led to a fall in emissions, although some sources suggest that it has.
Shreya Sojatia, an intern with SheThePeople.TV, in her write-up (published on March 21, 2020) says that the canals in Venice are cleaner than they ever were in the past 60 years.
Also, emissions are down. An analysis by Carbon Brief suggests a 15–40% reduction in the output of key industrial sectors and that has led to 25% fall in the emission of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) over the past few weeks.
NASA has released two images of China which showed that Nitrogen Dioxide levels were lower than earlier. The first image shows polluting gases hanging over the cities. In the other picture, the gases are nowhere to be seen. NO2 is closely related to fossil fuel burning and the average levels were seen to be 36% less than earlier.
With countries and cities going for work from home and implementing social distancing, the need to travel has gone down significantly. According to researchers at Columbia University, traffic in New York is estimated to have gone down by 35%. Their research also suggested that there was a drop in CO2 as well as Methane levels over New York. China has also shown signs of improved air quality, said a researcher from Stanford University.
Potential climatic impact
There has been much talk in the media about the potential climatic impact of the coronavirus-related shutdown. Europe has come to a virtual standstill, with the majority of countries under some kind of lockdown. Many assume that this is good for the environment.
Data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P satellite shows that Nitrogen Dioxide levels have plummeted across Europe since the pandemic broke out. NO2 is emitted in most cases by burning fossil fuels at high temperatures, as in internal combustion engines. However, Vincent-Henri Peuch, Director of the Copernic Atmosphere Monitoring Service told Euronews that the importance of the drop should not be overstated.
"I don't think we can say that there is any long term significance of this decrease. However, in the short term I think these decreases are useful...," he said.
Peuch believes the current situation may have a big impact on our approach to pollution. "Once we have this crisis behind us, the lessons learned will be very important to (rethink) the problem of air pollution," he says.
7 million people die each year from pollution: WHO
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that about 7 million people die each year from ailments caused by air pollution, and that more than 80% of people living in urban areas are exposed to air quality levels that exceed safe limits.
The situation is worse in low-income countries, where 98% of cities fail to meet WHO air quality standards.
Measurements from the Sentinel-5P satellite show that during late January and early February 2020, levels of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO₂) over cities and industrial areas in Asia and Europe were lower than in the same period in 2019, by as much as 40%.
Cleaner air around the world
India is one of the world's most-polluted countries and an average resident is exposed to air pollution that exceeds the World Health Organization's limit for annual PM2.5 exposure by more than 500%.
New Delhi - which frequently tops the lists of world's most polluted city - saw a 60% reduction in PM2.5 levels from March 23 to April 13 from the same period in 2019. Both New Delhi and India’s commercial centre Mumbai experienced their best March air quality on record in 2020.
During the initial three-week lockdown period, the number of hours rated as "unhealthy" in New Delhi dropped from 68% in 2019 to 17% in 2020.
Now, residents of Delhi say that they can see the sky clearly and also breathe well.
Meanwhile, the South Korean capital Seoul saw a 54% drop in PM2.5 levels from February 26 to March 18 from the previous year.
South Korea's air quality ranks among the worst of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, with some of the highest levels of particulate matter pollution. Last year in March, the government declared air pollution a "social disaster."
And Wuhan, where the deadly virus was first identified, saw a 44% reduction in air pollution levels from February 26 to March 18 vis-a-vis the same period last year.
Over the course of Wuhan's 10-week lockdown, the city experienced its cleanest air quality on record for the months of February and March. The average concentration of PM2.5 plunged from 63.2 and 43.9 micrograms per cubic meter in February and March 2019 respectively, to 36.8 and 32.9 in the same months this year. The World Health Organisation considers anything above 25 to be unsafe.
Elsewhere, other major cities experienced cleaner air. Los Angeles saw its longest stretch of clean air on record, over 18 days from March 7 to 28. PM2.5 concentration levels were down by 31% from the same time last year, and down 51% from the average of the previous four years.
And in Europe, London and Madrid both experienced reductions in their PM2.5 compared to 2019 during their lockdown periods.
Can bring systemic change
Given the data, reports, observations and analysis, it is clear that during the lockdown period the air pollution levels around the world have plummeted considerably.
India has been spending billions of rupees every year to bring down air pollution level in its cities and cleaning rivers like the Ganga. And the United Nations spends billions of dollars for environmental protection. But the money power could not do what the Novel Corona virus has done.
If the lockdown for a few months could bring considerable changes in the environment for good, a systematic, well thought out regular lockdown for a specific period every year will bring wonderful changes in the world, as far as environment is concerned.
Covid-19 is an unmitigated catastrophe but looking at the benefits of the lockdown - though unintended - the world leaders, the governments, the scientists and the think-tanks should put their heads together and find a viable solution to protect the land and the environment and the health of its inhabitants.
Instead of spending billions and trillions of dollars every year for protecting the earth from environmental disorders and climatic changes, we should think of observing one month ‘total lockdown’ after every six months. It will probably do more good. And for that a law should be passed at international level, binding all the countries, whether they are developed, developing or poor.
It is practicable; and feasible, too. Every person can do his seven months’ work in six months. Likewise, every country should plan to complete its seven month’s works in six months and give the earth one month rest.
The present unprecedented lockdown due to the coronavirus infection was unplanned and sudden. The world had to suffer a lot physically, mentally and economically. And the world economy crumbled and life came to a standstill.
When the unplanned lockdown that caused losses worth trillions, besides untold miseries to the people, brought unintended benefits to nature, a well thought out and planned total lockdown will benefit nature and environment much more without any loss of money. It will benefit the health sector and save trillions on account of environmental protection and health too.
God and protection of the universe:
The creator is bigger than the creation. Except for a small section, the whole world has faith in God and believes that God has created the universe, including the earth and the man. God created the earth with a purpose systematically and with perfection. Man, so far, could not find any imperfection in God’s creation.
And whatever degradation happened on the earth since its creation, including climatic and environmental changes, is man-made and we cannot blame God for that.
According to the Holy Bible, after creating the universe, God gave some laws and commandments to man to follow and obey. He also gave some decrees to his prophets related to the earth, in which He commanded to give rest to the earth, which is mentioned in the book of Leviticus.
Lockdown (rest) mentioned in the Holy Bible
The Sabbatical Year: (The Holy Bible – Leviticus chapter 25- Pages – 182-184 NKJV)
God spoke to Prophet Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you come into the land which I give you, then the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather its fruit; but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord. You shall neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard. What grows of its own accord of your harvest you shall not reap, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine, for it is a year of rest for the land…”
The Year of Jubilee
“And you shall count seven Sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years; and the time of the seven Sabbaths of years shall be to you forty-nine years… And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you…”
Though it is not impossible, it is clearly impractical to observe a total lockdown for one whole year, as said in the Bible. But the world can observe one month lockdown after every six months, if the world leaders are willing to do so after making a law for it.
So, think, act, and make earth a better place for living…
(The writer is a Senior Freelance Journalist and Editor of inquest.org.in)
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