In 2018 Sir David Attenborough declared that we had “lost all touch with the natural world”.
This year began with some of the worst wildfires in Australian history and record-breaking river levels and flooding here in the UK. Throw in the worst pandemic in at least the last century, and it makes depressing reading.
Some say nature is staging a fightback, but whatever you think about that, the past month or so offers a stark reminder of our impact on planet Earth.
Satellite imagery from the likes of NASA and the European Space Agency has shown the impact of an industrial slowdown, fewer cars and flights, among others, on air pollution levels around the world.
Paul Monks, a professor of air pollution at the University of Lancaster, labelled the accidental bi-product of recent events “the largest-scale experiment ever seen”.
Levels of Nitrogen Dioxide, which spills out of everything from our cars to power plants, are up to 30% lower in some areas of China, including in the now infamous city of Wuhan.
In Northern Italy, levels are down around 40%, while we’re also seeing a significant drop in the UK.
In Venice, an abundance of wildlife has been spotted in the city’s canals, with birds feeding on the fish that aren’t normally visible due to the pollution caused by motorised river taxis.
In the busy port of Cagliari, popular with cruise ships, dolphins have returned.
The airline industry has been left reeling by the crisis, with many carriers demanding billions from their country’s government to bail them out. The worst affected countries, like Italy and China, have seen 70-80% reductions in flight numbers versus the same period last year.
Globally, the International Air Transport Association conservatively predicts at least a 20% annual fall.
With an estimated 40.3 million flights previously expected in 2020, that could mean nearly eight million fewer planes in our skies this year, equivalent to a reduction of 20,000 flights daily.
Worldwide, flights produced 915 million tonnes of Carbon Dioxide in 2019, so we could see a year on year ‘saving’ of nearly 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. That’s the same amount produced by over 30 million Britons (around half of UK’s population) in a 12-month period.
So what is the verdict?
When these difficult times are hopefully one day over, we undoubtedly must invest in our NHS and its staff, strive to find better treatments and cures for everything from cancer to COVID-19, and better prepare as a country for such crises.
But we should also reflect on what really matters, and remind ourselves of the other, even greater and far less invisible threat, that awaits us: Climate change.
If 2020 teaches us one thing, it will be that we can and really should make a difference.