2020: While Humans Rushed To Get Back To Normal, Nature Showed That Normal Isn’t Working

In the first half of 2020, the coronavirus lockdown demonstrated that human societies can take drastic action, collectively and globally, to respond to natural threats. In the second half, the recovery demonstrated that human societies probably won’t.
Carbon emissions and other air pollutants plunged as the world went into lockdown in March, dropping by as much as 50 percent in some cities, rapidly curtailing emissions that contribute to climate change.
Some scientists speculated the lockdown might save more lives by curtailing pollution than by curtailing infection. Deaths from coronavirus approached 2 million globally in 2020, but air pollution typically causes 7 million deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization.
Other scientists wondered why the drop in air pollution wasn’t greater, with factories shuttered and streets empty, and they found that agriculture was a bigger source of ambient pollution than they had thought, in large part because farmers spray fields with livestock wastes.
The Animal Connection
Everywhere the coronavirus exploited scenes where humans exploit other species, from the site of the first known outbreak—at a wildlife market in Wuhan, China—to mink farms in Denmark and Utah. Across the United States, infections ran rampant at meat processing plants.
The message from nature seemed clear, and a group of Chicago doctors cited the pandemic, climate change and heart disease in calling for humans to shift to a plant-based diet. But Donald Trump issued an executive order encouraging meat processing plants to stay open. The order was largely toothless, but it signaled to meat processors that the Trump Administration would not hold them responsible for outbreaks tied to their operations.
Build Back The Same
Meanwhile, President-Elect Joe Biden’s campaign motto—“Build Back Better”—went viral too, as a buzzword for global “green” economic recovery efforts. Rodolfo Lacy, environmental director of the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), used the phrase to call for a green recovery from the pandemic recession, even as he revealed that only $321 billion out of $9 trillion in global stimulus funding thus far could be described as green.
By that time, though, global carbon emissions had largely recovered. In China, daily 2020 emissions began to exceed corresponding 2019 levels as soon as April, according to carbonmonitor.org. In the United States, they began passing 2019 daily levels in August and continued to do so periodically even as the pandemic worsened. Globally, the world was only 5.3 percent below its 2019 emissions at the end of November, steadily filling the gap the lockdown had created in Spring.
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