Placeholder Banner

Clear, Blue Skies During the Pandemic Not All it’s Cracked Up to Be

Cornelia Poku
Cornelia Poku
May 5, 2020

This stunning gallery on Quartz highlights one of the most popular and positive headlines to come out of the coronavirus pandemic—the touting of clear, blue skies and wild animals roaming streets.

While the images are beautiful, a disappointing truth (often buried at the end of these articles) is that this is a very little sign of optimism.  

Photo courtesy: Quartz

Matt Simon, for WIRED, gets a little more real, “dig deeper into how the pandemic is influencing the climate, and surprising and often counterintuitive dynamics begin to emerge.”

One paradox, for example, is concerning emissions. Through worldwide stay-at-home orders, emissions are indeed decreased, but prior to the pandemic, they’ve been on a steady incline despite the Paris Agreement. So, the small dip in emissions output still hardly hits the milestones that need to be met in order to lower the earth’s temperature.

And environmental scientists don’t think it’s going to get any better. Without systemic long-term solutions, like the increased use of biofuels, this decrease will only be temporary. Furthermore, it’s clear that emissions are not just linked to earth’s temperature, but also to human health.

Biofuels like Gevo’s jet fuel with no carbon footprint can completely revolutionize travel.

“My raw materials are actually carbon dioxide in the atmosphere going through photosynthesis in the plant matter to make sugars and I’m taking the sugars and making it jet fuel. It burns and makes CO2. That’s a closed loop,” Gevo CEO Pat Gruber told the I am BIO podcast. A “drop-in solution” like that enables planes to carry just as many people and go just as far without harming the planet.

And humans will take less of a hit too.

Recently, Harvard University released a study that showed increased air pollution has a profound negative impact on symptoms from illnesses like the coronavirus. And it is not just Harvard that found this connection. As New Scientist notes, “the University of Cambridge overlaid nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and nitrogen oxide (NO) levels from more than 120 monitoring stations across England with figures on coronavirus infections and deaths. They found a link between poor air quality and the lethality of COVID-19 in those areas.”

“We have the technology to make cleaner fuels—and even replace petroleum products—using plants and waste, but policy needs to catch up,” says BIO’s VP of Industrial and Environment Section, Stephanie Batchelor, “Renewable, low-carbon fuels—as well as national low-carbon fuel standards—could help us respond to the coronavirus health impacts and rebuild a more resilient economy, especially in rural America.”

A second paradox is plastic. As businesses have closed, waste management facilities have reported a decrease in commercial waste. But on the other hand, Amazon reported at least a 35% increase in sales from this time last year meaning more packaging materials are being distributed throughout the world. Additionally, the need for personal protective equipment, sanitizers, and cleansers has led to an increase in development and disposal of those materials. Countries that struggle with centralized waste management are seeing more masks and gloves on the streets and in the ocean.

So why not recycle it?

The recycling system in many parts of the world was already fragile prior to coronavirus, and since the start of the pandemic, a number of recycling plants have closed entirely worsening the problem.

This is just another example of why we must have a production supply chain that is more reliant on reusable materials, and biodegradable and compostable plastics.

Ford, the car manufacturer that has a good history with sustainability, is using the pandemic as an opportunity to experiment. Of late, they’ve been making washable and reusable hospital-grade protective gowns out of their airbag material.

Biotech companies like Anellotech, Renmatix, and Virent, Inc, use a variety of biobased ingredients that remove waste from the environment and—whether disposed or composted—can be returned to the environment.

Take Virent’s plastic development method; they are taking existing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere as well as otherwise discarded food waste to develop plastic and that plastic can be composted.

Despite baby blue skies, we can’t halt the economy to solve climate change. The biotech industry is offering better solutions around greenhouse gasses, fuels, and renewable plastics. Not just for our planet, but for our health.

As Justin Worland wrote for Time, “environmental science and policy experts warn not to call [the pandemic] a silver lining; any sustainable reduction in emissions and pollution will need to happen in a way that doesn’t totally splinter society.”