While the human toll mounted horrendously from a single case in Wuhan to a global pandemic that has so far killed more than 88,000 people, nature, it seemed, was increasingly able to breathe more easily.
As motorways cleared and factories closed, dirty brown pollution belts shrunk over cities and industrial centres in country after country within days of lockdown. First China, then Italy, now the UK, Germany and dozens of other countries are experiencing temporary falls in carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide of as much as 40%, greatly improving air quality and reducing the risks of asthma, heart attacks and lung disease.
For many experts, it is a glimpse of what the world might look like without fossil fuels. But hopes that humanity could emerge from this horror into a healthier, cleaner world will depend not on the short-term impact of the virus, but on the long-term political decisions made about what follows.
After decades of relentlessly increasing pressure, the human footprint on the earth has suddenly lightened. Air traffic halved by mid-March compared with the same time last year. Last month, road traffic fell in the UK by more than 70%, to levels last seen when the Beatles were in shorts. With less human movement, the planet has literally calmed: seismologists report lower vibrations from “cultural noise” than before the pandemic.
Key environmental indices, which have steadily deteriorated for more than half a century, have paused or improved. In China, the world’s biggest source of carbon, emissions were down about 18% between early February and mid-March – a cut of 250m tonnes, equivalent to more than half the UK’s annual output. Europe is forecast to see a reduction of around 390m tonnes. Significant falls can also be expected in the US, where passenger vehicle traffic – its major source of CO2 – has fallen by nearly 40%. Even assuming a bounceback once the lockdown is lifted, the planet is expected to see its first fall in global emissions since the 2008-9 financial crisis.