And yet: what would happen on Earth if humans left? On the contrary: what happens if they really leave, if they are forced to stay indoors, if they cannot move because of the lockdown imposed by the emergency coronavirus, as happened all over the world more or less between February and April 2020? Would the planet be better off? Are we really “a cancer, a plague, an extensive infection”, the disappearance of which nature would benefit? Is Agent Smith right? A little yes, but also a little no. But even this “a little no” is our fault.
February and March, enthusiasm: nature awakens
In the first weeks of quarantine we saw all the images of nature recovering its spaces, of the clearest waters in the seas and rivers, of the Po valley free from smog, clear skies also in the most industrialized and usually polluted areas of China. It wasn’t just suggestion: we drove less (or not at all), the planes did not fly, the large ships did not transport goods from one end of the world to the other and all this has had clear benefits on reducing pollution levels. The numbers confirm it: according to one study published in the second half of May in the journal Nature, greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere have decreased by approximately 1 billion tons in March and April, with an average daily drop of 17% in April.
In detail, again according to Nature’s explanation, the pollution levels have changed differently from sector to sector between January and April 2020: -60% for air transport, which was practically zeroed, but only -36% for road transport (we were at home, but the e-commerce giants continued to make deliveries), -19% for industry , but + 3% for private homes, where we spent most of our time.
The case aside: the fires in the Amazon
“Without” man, however, has generally gone better for Earth. Not everywhere, though: in the Amazon it has gone, and is still going, much worse. Because the men and women forced to stay home because of the pandemic were the “good guys”, those who protected the forest from fires and deforestation. The others, the “bad guys”, continued to act undisturbed thanks to the lockdown: on the 19th century website we wrote it in early May, saying that in March over 520 square kilometers of trees had been swept away, the worst figure of the last 10-12 years, and that the rhythm of destruction of green in the first 3 months of 2020 had grown by 50% compared to the same period of 2019. The question, we explained, is that “the forest rangers are in quarantine to avoid contagion, but the arsonists do not”.
As the weeks go by, the problem has worsened and from ecological it has become (also) humanitarian, because it concerns those people who live among the trees of the Amazon, that is, the natives: even Pope Francis recalled that “the native and Amazonian peoples have never been so threatened as they are now », with the pandemic that makes fears of genocide and the extermination of whole populations grow again. Again, the numbers confirm: in the Amazonian territory there were about 7500 coronavirus deaths, almost 160 thousand infected, of which 12 thousand only in Manaus (data updated at the end of May).
April and May, the disappointment: the global temperature rises
Even for the rest of the world, however, the idyll did not last long, among new cases of “Coral bleaching” on Australia’s great coral reef, the spill of approx 20 thousand tons of fuel in a river north of Norilsk, in Siberia and above all the heat, very hot. But really hot: according to the scientists of the Copernicus program, which belongs to the European Union, last May, the first month in which man has more or less fully resumed his activities on Earth, was the hottest May of the past 40 years, with an average temperature of 0.6 degrees higher than the others in May from 1981 to today. Worse still: the 12 months between June 2019 and May 2020 have been 0.7 degrees warmer than average, coming to equal the period between October 2015 and September 2016. Which until now was the hottest ever.
Always according to Copernicus, the “fault” is above all of the areas that they should be cold, such as Alaska, Antarctica and Siberiahowever, they are no longer cold, or at least much less than they should be: in Siberia in May the temperature was 10 degrees higher than the average for the period. Overall, the past 12 months have been 1.3 degrees warmer than in the pre-industrial era, chosen as a reference point for the limits not to be exceeded to contain global warming: we are approaching dangerously, because the minimum objective is not to go beyond 2 degrees more and the ideal would be to stay below 1.5 more.
It will be very difficult to do it because the bad news of May is not over: in the past weeks, the American observatory of Mauna Loa, one of the most reliable for this type of measurement, found that the carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have risen so much that it reaches 414.7 parts per million. How bad is it? IS the highest value in the past 3 million years. Three million years ago, the ancestor of man began to take his first steps on Earth and the temperature was so high that there was practically no ice in Greenland and there was very little even in Antarctica. Here, the fear of the scientific world is that that is the climate that awaits us, if we continue on this path.
Because the lockdown was of no use (or in any case very little)
It will be said: but how, we are locked in the house for 2 months and nothing changes? Then it’s not true that we have to stop using the car and ride a bicycle to reduce smog. It is true how it is (and the self cause 25% of what we pollute every year, as we explained in November 2019), only 2 months is not enough. And not even three or four: “It will be as if it never happened”, Professor Robert Jackson told the Washington Post, professor at Stanford University and among the authors of the study published by Nature, recalling that “in 2008, due to the financial crisis, polluting emissions fell by 1.5% … and then go up 5% within a couple of years». What Jackson means is that “it will be as if it never happened” if we continue to do nothing, or very little: according to estimates, the lockdown on people’s lives and commercial activities imposed by the coronavirus will result in the end of the year in a 4 to 7% drop in pollutant emissions. Which is a value previously unthinkable and never felt in recent decades, but still insufficient: last autumn, a UN report calculated that emissions should drop by at least 7.6% per year, every year, starting from 2020 , to avoid irreversible effects on the climate. We couldn’t even manage it by staying 2-3 months indoors.
To succeed instead, the way is always the same that the scientific community has been repeating for years, focusing mainly on its 2 actions: limit the use of fossil fuels as much as possible and reduce meat consumption; for individual people, this means give up the car (it is 25% of the pollution) and animal-derived foods, because another is due to the farms 15-30% of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere each year.
our world in data: temperature anomalies from 1850 to today
The problem, at this point, is that what individual people do it is no longer enough, because greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years (which is why a 2-3 month drop is almost insignificant) and actions are needed not only at the level of individual States, but probably collective . Sensational actions, capable of reversing a trend that seems unstoppable. In “New York 2140”, the award-winning American writer Kim Stanley Robinson tells that much of the world (including Manhattan, as the title suggests) ended up practically underwater due to the melting of the ice and the consequent rise in sea level: the author imagines that it happened in two stages, during a First Wave and a Second Wave, and that between one and the other the man has actually tried to do something, even great things never attempted before, such as “shooting a few billion tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to simulate a volcanic eruption, deflect sunlight and bring down temperatures“. It didn’t help, because “they did what they should have done 50 years ago.” It was too late, in short.
True and just a novel science fiction. A bit like even “Contagion” was just a science fiction film, at least until it became reality …