Nature Recovers During Coronavirus Closures. But Will It Last?

Cleaner air and water due to decreased industry and personal activity is a rare positive sign during the crisis. Without conservation policy, it’s unlikely to stay.

Even amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, there’s been some positive news of environmental improvements globally.

The waters in the Venetian canals cleared. Los Angeles’ infamous smog cover disappeared. Here in metro Detroit, water quality and air pollution are improving as a result of decreased activity.

“We would hope that we could limit our pollution and interference with nature without a global pandemic.” — Nick Schroeck, University of Detroit Mercy

Nick Schroeck is an environmental law expert at University of Detroit Mercy. He tells WDET’s Annamarie Sysling that this is the result of widespread school and business closures.

“Plant and animal species, and the overall quality of the water and the air, those things can improve pretty rapidly without any human involvement,” Schroeck said. 

It’s a double edged sword though. Schroeck says that while it’s positive to see nature recover, it’s crucial to preserve these gains with ecologically-conscious choices and policies.

Click on the player above to hear why the environment is seeing improvements during the pandemic, and how we might sustain them.

Climate, Meet Health

Jenni Sheridan Moss
Jenni Sheridan Moss

Even before the coronavirus, Detroit was one example of environmental resurgence after depopulation. 

“We see fox, we see pheasant, we see other species you wouldn’t expect to see in an urban environment,” says Schroeck, including various plant life.

Improvements to water quality amid the pandemic is one thing Schroeck is optimistic about.

“We are having less industrial discharge in our sewers or directly into our rivers lakes and streams,” Schroek says. “Decreased vehicle traffic is less gasoline and oil and dust from brake pads rinsing off roads into our water.”

And these environmental gains can lead to better population health. Consider particulate matter in our air from industrial pollution, which can exacerbate respiratory issues and is a particular concern during the spread of COVID-19, a respiratory disease.  

Sustainable Gains?

But Schroeck says it takes sound conservation policy to keep these gains. 

“We would hope that we could limit our pollution and limit our interference with nature without a global pandemic,” Schroeck says. 

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He notes that amid this pandemic, the Environmental Protection Agency has rolled back pollution reporting, essentially telling regulated industries they can waive requirements during the pandemic. 

Many environmental groups say that oil refineries and major utilities could “potentially game the system” by not using existing pollution control technology at this time to save money.

The Macomb County fatberg “was a large collection of fats, oils and wipes. They need to be thrown away.”

Looking at policy, Schroeck points to reinterpreting the Depression-era job creation plan, the Civilian Conservation Corps. He also says now could be a prime opportunity to invest in solar panels and better fuel economy for autos and airlines (the Trump administration rolled back vehicle fuel requirements during the pandemic). 

But there’s a more immediate action anyone can take to help the environment: Pick up your trash. 

Anecdotal reports of masks, gloves and disinfectant wipes becoming litter have spread across social media. 

“Please think about disposing of those properly,” Shroeck says. “A rubber glove that washes into a storm drain” can lead to infrastructure issues, pointing to Macomb County “fatberg” that emerged in recent years.

“That was a large collection of fats, oils and wipes,” Shroeck says. “They need to be thrown away.”

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