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In our opinion: Coronavirus lockdowns are clearing the skies. It would be a mistake to ignore it

The virus refutes the myth that nothing can be done to help the environment.

A couple walks through Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area as downtown Los Angeles is seen in the background, Friday, March 27, 2020, in Los Angeles. Southern Californians who ventured outside will saw excellent air quality, resulting from business closures during the coronavirus pandemic and recent rain, experts said.
AP

The coronavirus and its attendant devastation has reminded humanity of its interconnected nature — that one person’s actions affect another, and that each life, in small ways and large, relies on outside help. “We’re all in this together,” shouldn’t be dismissed as a cute rallying cry; it truly is the way for the world to combat an enemy smaller than the eye can see.

With any luck, awakening to that relationship will have positive effects in other areas of life that need attention. The environment should be counted among them.

It’s not insignificant the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, which the world marks today, falls during a time when shelter-in-place orders have dramatically reduced air pollution in congested areas and when many businesses are learning they can be productive while producing less waste.

Here, we emphasize it would be horribly inappropriate to celebrate a pandemic because of its environmental impacts. But it also would be a mistake to ignore the lessons this moment has to offer once the virus is defeated.

First: The virus refutes the myth that nothing can be done to help the environment. Satellite data clearly show city after city reducing its air pollution because of lockdown restrictions. Residents in New Delhi, the world’s most polluted city, describe seeing blue skies as “pure joy.” There, a typical air quality day boasts a 200 on the air quality index, with spikes reaching into the 900s. It now hovers around 30.

The same story plays out in Beijing, New York City, Venice and even in smaller metro areas. Poor air quality, which the World Health Organization estimates is responsible for 4.2 million deaths a year, can be improved by actions as simple as taking cars off the road.

The second lesson complements the first: It would be foolish to think government lockdowns are the best way to care for the planet. These are unprecedented times that deserve swift action from governments to preserve the right to life. But once the pandemic is in the rearview mirror, it would be hard to imagine the public stomaching a lockdown for something like a red air quality day.

Most experts are merely counting the air pollution reductions as aberrations, a “silver lining” to a terrible problem. They acknowledge life will resume in due time, and with it will come the same patterns as before.

A better approach would be to incentivize businesses and residents to change their behavior. Congestion pricing for cars or credits to businesses that promote telecommuting are modest steps that could have sizable effects on a city’s air quality.

A third lesson: Technology and the private sector should lead out. Tech companies with nothing to gain but the satisfaction of doing the right thing have proven their worth in the age of coronavirus. Manufacturing plants have retooled their equipment to make protective gear in a matter of days. It only took James Dyson — of vacuum cleaner fame — and his company a week and a half to invent a ventilator for COVID-19 patients.

These are the segments of society poised to dominate the green economy. With the right amount of leeway and market incentives, they can revolutionize the way society interacts with the planet.

The final lesson is also the most fundamental: Overcoming adversity, be it a virus or a sullied environment, truly requires everyone’s help, a reality made easier when the issue transcends politics and becomes a matter of stewardship and responsibility. The Mother Earth that spread a virus requiring communities to band together is the same earth that needs those communities to safeguard its future.

The coronavirus is helping us accentuate our stewardship over one another. It should help us better see our role as stewards of the planet, too.