Should a little green man — green, that is, in outlook as well as hue — visit Earth now, he might conclude that we have finally got our act together.
He would see that the air is cleaner, waters clearer, streets and flight paths quieter and wildlife happier than at any time in living memory, just as Greta Thunberg and millions of young people want.
The environment has improved in one fell swoop.
The coronavirus lockdowns, now affecting almost half the world’s population in some form, have produced one beneficiary from the deadly, devastatingly disruptive disease: the planet itself.
London, like the majority of the world, remains on coronavirus lockdown. Yet the planet appears to be benefitted from a vast decrease in human activity
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And that just might provide a tiny grain of hope, amid the nightmare of so much suffering, for a better, prosperous and more resilient world.
As the Mail reported a week ago, Nature is breaking cover across Britain, with moles, weasels, oystercatchers, tawny owls, golden plover and other species glorying in having the countryside to themselves.
Fish have filled Venice’s 150 canals; their murky water has turned blue and transparent as pollution has been cut and far fewer boat engines stir up the sediment.
Ducks splash in Rome’s usually tourist-besieged fountains. A puma was seen prowling Santiago, Chile’s capital, while wild turkeys have been strutting through Oakland, California.
Meanwhile, satellites have reported ‘spectacular’ falls in air pollution over much of China, where the pandemic — and harsh measures to counter it — began.
The killer smogs that have long shrouded so many of its cities have been replaced by blue skies as factories closed and roads emptied.
Ironically, Stanford University calculated that so far this has probably ‘saved the lives of 4,000 children under five, and 73,000 adults over 70’.
A puma was seen prowling Santiago, Chile’s capital; a signal that nature is beginning to venture forth as the human race takes a back seat to tackle the rising pandemic
Air pollution levels have also plunged in Europe and the U.S. And they are down by a third to a half in London, Bristol, Birmingham and Cardiff.
Slashed pollution, mainly from fossil fuel use, benefits the climate, too, as less carbon dioxide is released.
Over February, China’s emissions of the global-warming gas fell by 25 per cent. And air traffic worldwide is expected to fall by 38 per cent.
Motorways are nearly empty, airports largely dormant. And the Beatles’ pedestrian crossing in St John’s Wood is being repainted because, just for once, nobody is using it.
In the Lake District, where police are discouraging tourists, a latter-day Wordsworth could again wander lonely as a cloud.
And he’d have his golden daffodils, too. For, on top of all this, it is spring and, to date, a wonderfully sunny one. What’s not to like?
Well, alas, we all know what. Such environmental benefits pale against the horror of a more perilous, anxious time than any of us could have imagined.
So far, nearly 74,000 people have died from the coronavirus worldwide, nearly 5,400 of them in Britain. Hundreds of thousands more untimely deaths are expected.
Many millions are in economic peril. Countless numbers of people leading modestly comfortable lives have been tipped into terrifying insecurity, through no fault of their own.
A deeper depression than that of the 1930s may loom. In Britain, it is feared, the economy will contract by 15 per cent next quarter — more than seven times as much as at the height of the 2008-09 financial crisis.
Professor Philip Thomas, of Bristol University, warns that if the lockdown leads to Britain’s GDP falling by 6.4 per cent, more years of life will be lost than if the virus had been left to spread unchecked.
The world has been turned completely upside down by a microscopic organism.
Turning it around again will not be easy. And was what we had — though incomparably better than at present — really the right way up? There are compelling grounds for believing that it was poised for just what has happened — the first truly global environmental/economic disaster — and that, if we did get back to ‘normal’, more such catastrophes would follow.
Covid-19 is thought to have originated in a bat and spread to people via an illegally traded pangolin in a Chinese ‘wet market’. Experts have long predicted a pandemic starting in some such way.
Covid-19 is thought to have originated in a bat and spread to people via an illegally traded pangolin in a Chinese ‘wet market, similar to the one pictured above
Indeed, this coronavirus is only the latest in a series of diseases to have infected humans from wildlife, usually because of environmental destruction.
As forests are felled, animals — and their viruses — are forced closer to people. Ebola, Zika and West Nile disease have all been linked to deforestation. HIV, Nipah virus and the previous coronaviruses Sars and Mers also originated in wildlife. The surprise is that a major pandemic has not come sooner.
Incredibly, it could have been even worse. The percentage death rate from the coronavirus is in low single figures, whereas the bird flu that caused much concern some 15 years ago, but has not spread, kills half the people it infects.
Climate change adds to the danger, causing species to move and releasing long-frozen viruses from melting ice. And it threatens catastrophes of its own, as the recent Australian bushfires testify.
Indeed, there is likely to come a point where increasing heat makes it impossible for the world to grow enough food.
Largely due to Greta Thunberg’s campaign, a growing number of governments — with ours in the lead — have committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But accelerating feedbacks in the climate system, such as melting Arctic sea ice — which replaces a white shield that reflects the Sun’s heat with dark water that absorbs it — threaten to send global warming out of control before then.
Largely due to Greta Thunberg’s campaign, a growing number of governments — with ours in the lead — have committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050
So the choice is no longer between changing how we do things and business as usual, but between rapid change and a series of environmental disasters that devastate the world economy.
Terrible and destructive though it is, the coronavirus crisis provides a pause for thought. It has revealed gaping cracks in our present system, and has already dramatically shifted what is thought to be possible.
The environment and the economy, once thought irreconcilable, are increasingly seen to be inseparable.
The economy, as Covid-19 has made painfully clear, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, dependent on healthy natural systems. And green investment is increasingly recognised as the best route to prosperity.
Three years ago, an international commission of top business leaders identified £9.8 trillion of opportunities in green, sustainable development. Many businesses are already pioneering such a transformation.
Imminent decisions could determine whether the world embraces the huge opportunity for low-carbon, environmentally attuned prosperity or tries to claw its way back to the old, unsustainable status quo.
The vast stimulus packages now being prepared must ensure that assisted industries create public value in return. A bailed-out car company could be required to accelerate production of electric vehicles, an airline to use low-carbon fuel.
Two global summits, on climate change and wildlife — now expected next year — provide an extraordinary opportunity for the world to set a new course. Britain hosts the climate one: a chance to establish post-Brexit global leadership.
It could build bridges between China, with whose president, Xi Jinping, Boris Johnson discussed the summits by phone, the U.S. and the rest of the world, to enable agreement on the change the world so desperately requires.