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COVID-19 and the Climate Crisis

To understand how the ramifications of COVID-19 have affected climate change, it is important firstly to have a basic understanding of climate change. Climate change is an extremely complicated topic and I, a law student, am not going to attempt to break down every scientific aspect of climate change in the next few paragraphs. I’m sure many of you already have a vast understanding and I would venture to say that nearly all of you at least have the basic facts, so I’ll keep it brief. 

Climate change describes the changes occurring to the earth’s climate as a result of an increase of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere produced largely from humans burning fossil fuels. There are also other sources that contribute to rising greenhouse gasses such as methane produced by agriculture, and land-use change such as forestry. These practices increase the amount of greenhouse gasses, namely carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere, which then traps more heat from the sun, and warms the planet. As of April 2020, the planet has warmed approximately 1.9 degrees Celsius since 1880. This might seem insignificant, but it has, and will continue to have, extreme consequences for the earth and for humans. Scientists across the world warn that further increases in temperature could have catastrophic impacts on human life and the planet. Despite fervent political arguments otherwise, it is overwhelmingly clear that humans are the primary cause of climate change. 

It is safe to say the COVID-19 pandemic has many of us wanting to cha-cha back to 2019. Personally, I am thoroughly missing picking up a regular soy flat white in my keep cup (#environment) and strolling into contract law 10 minutes late. While a coffee addict may feel deprived, the environment is thriving. This is the result of the global pandemic which has seen the everyday grind come to a halt. Widespread shutdown, empty highways, global air travel non-existent, shuttered businesses and subsequently, plummeting pollution levels. The pandemic has temporarily cleaned our skies. Unseen realities such as being able to see the Himalayas from the ground in the Indian city of Punjab for the first time in decades, or saving approximately 53,000 lives in China is the reality which has emerged out of the lock-down and from a dramatic reduction of pollution. 

The turtles on Florida’s beach are thriving and the flamingos in Albania are flourishing. Amidst the despair that COVID-19 has brought, shines a small token of light – our planet is sighing with relief. The destructive virus has forced the entire world’s population to retreat back into their homes. For years humans have contributed to the emission of harmful gasses through daily functions of life. Science is now showing that less human activity is equating to less pollution. Isn’t it ironic that it was a respiratory disease that is plaguing the planet? It was pollution that made the virus worse, but now lockdowns are bringing about a breath of fresh air—literally. Nitrous oxide and CO2 levels have dropped across the globe and even in little old New Zealand the air quality is sharply improving. 

Despite these positive ecological ramifications, there’s some not so good stuff on the horizon. While it has been inspiring to see all of the positive environmental results coming from our quarantine, climate change is not a quick fix. It has been eye-opening to see how quickly nature can flourish in the absence of human interference, but there has still been an increase of online shopping, a decrease in recycling practices, and a major influx of waste from overworked hospitals. Active climate protection measures have taken a back seat and with a recession looming we need to be conscious that we don’t over-exert the system. That being said, the cleaner skies and stories of animals roaming into what were once human dominated spaces truly exemplifies our impact on the climate. There is a lot more work to be done, but it is clear more now than ever that it is possible. Moving past COVID-19, if we choose to unite behind science rather than fear, it is clear how much we can achieve. 

The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research has been providing air quality updates during COVID-19 restrictions, showing the rise and fall of nitrous oxides, another prominent greenhouse gas. Less than a week into lockdown we began to see radical improvements in our air quality. Week to week NIWA have been posting comprehensive reports comparing the current nitrous oxides levels to what would be expected for this time of year. The levels detected on Riccarton Road fell by 83% over the first three weeks of lockdown. As amazing as these results are, author of the reports, Dr. Ian Longley, has stated that it is too early to tell if changes in traffic volumes within the lockdown period, such as during the Easter holidays, or increases in home heating are also impacting air quality. It is important to remember that there are many variables to consider when looking at the environmental impact of COVID-19, and that the positive results of this four-week period will not continue unless we consciously continue along this path working to reduce emissions. 

Coming out of lockdown the government will focus on rebuilding and strengthening our economy. When things go back to “normal”, we risk compromising all of the environmental benefits that have occurred during the lockdown. We also possibly risk that environmental concerns will fade entirely into the background, and the harm resulting from the “norm” will continue. It is for this reason that the Zero Carbon Bill is so important. The Bill aims to reduce New Zealand’s carbon emissions to zero and prevent the global average temperature from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial levels. The Zero Carbon Bill seeks to ensure that New Zealand continues to reduce its climate impacts even if public and government attention dwindles. Rod Carr and the other members of the Climate Commission have issued a statement imploring the government to not put climate on the back burner. Following the Great Recession in 2008, environmental reform was all but forgotten. We cannot repeat history. As New Zealanders we can play our part by urging our MPs to remember our responsibility to protect this planet, now and for future generations. We have shown we can temporarily “heal” the earth, now we must choose to make that an ongoing reality. 

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