Covid-19 is showing us how to respect our beautiful planet

The Covid-19 pandemic has reduced our movements and enhanced remote working, significantly reducing air pollution in many urban areas. This "new normal" can teach us how to better respect our planet while still being productive, starting from academic research.

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Today we celebrate the Earth. To do so, I suggest we stop our busy lives for a moment and think about how amazing our planet is.

The Earth
The Earth, image from NASA

All the beautiful landscapes it offers us.

Pietra di Bismantova, Italian Apennines
Pietra di Bismantova, Italian Apennines

Fifty years ago, when the Earth day was instituted, no one could imagine we will celebrate its 50th anniversary during a pandemic. Yet, these unprecedented times allow us the power we have with our small actions to preserve our beloved planet.

The Covid-19 pandemic has limited our movements and enforced social distancing. This is indeed dramatic for the economy and our lives. After all, as animals, we are inherently social, and our social behavior is critical for our health and survival. Thankfully, we don't live in the 19th century anymore. We have internet and technology that allow us to replace social distancing, dramatic for our mental health, with physical distancing, required to limit the spread of the virus. When it comes to our daily job, we may need to redefine productivity, taking into account all non-productive, yet important, tasks we do while working remotely. But undoubtedly, video conference platforms have a huge role in preserving our mental health and jobs during this pandemic – allowing us to be social while maintaining physical distance – and also preserving the environment.

Let's consider an emblematic example: research. A key part of academic life is attending conferences, workshops, and meetings all over the world, to network with other researchers and present your most recent results. This usually entails taking long-haul flights, which emit tons of CO2. As a result, scholars are big contributors to climate change. Despite several initiatives to reduce academia's carbon footprint, the majority of researchers still attend several conferences every year, fearing that flying less would affect their career. Until Covid-19, when major conferences had to be cancelled due to health concerns and travel restrictions. This urged scholars to find alternatives to network and promote their research. In neuroscience, for example, OHBMx used Twitter to organize a conference, with both keynotes and research presentations delivered in the form of a number of tweets. Other labs have put together neuromatch, an online conference entirely based on video conference platforms, spanning research talks and social hours. These online conferences turned out to be a great success, with thousands of attendees returning very positive feedback to the organizers. Considering that traditional conferences are far from being perfect, online conferences offer more than just alternatives: they save money, time and carbon emissions. Thanks to these successes and the advice shared by the organizers, several major organizations are now promoting online conferences or offering their annual meetings virtually.

More than one month has passed since we adopted this "new normal", and we can now analyze the effects of this new behavior on the environment. Let's first look at air pollution. The European Space Agency has compared the air pollution over Europe during the last month with that measured during the same period in 2019, when there were no restrictions in movements. It turns out that air pollution has decreased by 50% in many urban areas, with benefits for both our health and that of our planet. In fact, air pollution kills more than 4 million people every year, and significantly contributes to climate change through carbon dioxide, airborne particles, and other greenhouse gases. Similar results applied to other parts of the world, such as China.

Nitrogen dioxide concentrations over Europe
Nitrogen dioxide concentrations over Europe

If these data are not enough to convince us how our actions impact the environment, a recent study showed that the ozone has started recovering as a result of the Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987 to protect the ozone layer by banning harmful substances.

Overall, the Covid-19 pandemic is teaching us that we can still be productive while preserving our planet, reducing our movements to fight climate change without renouncing to socialize and network.  

Go to the profile of Davide Valeriani

Davide Valeriani

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Harvard Medical School

My research combines neuroscience and machine learning to develop neurotechnologies for human enhancement. Beside computational neuroscience research, my interests span environmental protection, photography, and cooking.

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