Fri | Aug 7, 2020

Earth Today | Caribbean professor makes case for efforts to sustain COVID-19 gains

Published:Thursday | July 9, 2020 | 12:00 AM

One Caribbean academic has made a push for efforts to sustain the environmental gains, however limited, from the global pandemic, COVID-19.

Professor Leonard Nurse, lecturer at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Cave Hill, said those gains include improvements in air quality, recorded in locations such as Delhi, India; London, United Kingdom; and Seoul, Korea.

Those cities have seen a decrease in atmospheric fine particulate matter of between nine and 54 per cent compared to 2019, over a three-week lockdown period, with improvements linked to a decline in greenhouse gas emissions associated with industrial activity that are known air pollutants.

Nurse was speaking at the June 5 teleconference of The UWI, Mona, which looked at ‘COVID-19 and the Environment: For Better or for Worse’.

The professor, who is also coordinating lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Small Islands Chapter, said the gains also extend to water quality at sites including the River Ganges, India, and the Grand Canal, Venice.

Nurse, who presented on the topic ‘Cleaner Air, Clearer Waters: Are the environmental benefits of COVID-19 real and/or sustainable?’ said that within 10 days of the nationwide lockdown in India, the River Ganges was showing conditions “suitable for bathing” while there has been a “return of some wildlife and fish” and “a 34 per cent reduction in faecal coliform”.


For Venice’s Grand Canal, he said national quarantine had seen a “substantial reduction in industrial and commercial effluent and solid waste [and] fish and other aquatic wildlife now frequent the canals”.

According to Nurse, actions to sustainably maintain those developments should be taken; and the ‘why’ is clear.

“Air pollution is linked to health risks, for example, heart and lung disease, stroke and premature death. The WHO in 2019 attributed some 4.2 million premature deaths to air pollution. We also know from the WHO statistics that almost 29 per cent of global lung cancer deaths are attributed to air pollution; about 24 per cent strokes, 25 per cent of heart disease and about 43 per cent from lung cancer,” he told conference participants.

Air pollution has also been known to impact the natural environment.

“There is the issue of acid rain which is harmful to fish and aquatic life in oceans, rivers and lakes; [can] impact food security and ocean uptake of CO2. Air pollution poses a threat to forests and food crops, for example, via acid rain on leaves and stems of flora; and also by the direct uptake of contaminants, for example, heavy metals, from soil,” he said.

Nurse is not alone in his call for efforts to build on the gains from COVID-19.

Executive Director for the United Nations Environment Programme, Inger Andersen, while acknowledging the observed improvements, has nonetheless urged caution and deliberate action to ensure they can be maintained into the future.

“The global coronavirus pandemic, which has already caused unimaginable devastation and hardship, has brought our way of life to an almost complete halt. The outbreak will have profound and lasting economic and social consequences in every corner of the globe. In the face of such turmoil, as the secretary general (Antonio Guterres) has indicated, COVID-19 will require a response like none before – a ‘wartime’ plan in times of human crisis,” she said, speaking in April this year.

“And as we inch from a ‘wartime’ response to ‘building back better’, we need to take on board the environmental signals and what they mean for our future and well-being, because COVID-19 is by no means a ‘silver lining’ for the environment,” she added.


Andersen said that the observed changes are very likely temporary, given the circumstances under which they had come about.

“Visible, positive impacts – whether through improved air quality or reduced greenhouse gas emissions – are but temporary, because they come on the back of tragic economic slowdown and human distress. The pandemic will also result in an increase in the amounts of medical and hazardous waste generated,” she said.

“This is no one’s model of environmental response, least of all an environmentalist’s. And indeed, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography has highlighted that fossil fuel use would have to decline by about 10 per cent around the world, and would need to be sustained for a year to show up clearly in carbon dioxide levels,” Andersen added.