In a time of uncertainty and fear surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, a silver lining is emerging as pollution levels are plummeting across the globe. Is this a temporary change, or a long-lasting environmental reset?

In ways that are both devastating and surprisingly positive, the coronavirus is drastically changing our world. Environmentalists made it clear that 2020 would be a “critical year” to limit the long-lasting impacts of global warming and to hopefully prevent the irreversible damage caused by climate change. 

COVID-19’s impact is felt by millions as restaurants and bars shut down, air travel is restricted and stay at home orders are being enforced across the globe. The surprising yet largely unreported result of social distancing is the extremely drastic dip in global pollution levels, as well as the improvement of air quality in many major cities. 

Venice, Italy is experiencing canal water so clear that fish can easily be seen. The capital of India, a city known for its extremely polluted air, has such blue skies that many locals can see the Himalayan Mountains for the first time. Compared to last year, New York is experiencing pollution levels reduced by nearly 50 percent. In China, air pollution levels have dropped by roughly 25 percent as coal power plants and other industrial facilities are shut down. 

Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, statedIt is an unprecedented dramatic drop in emissions. I’ve definitely spoken to people in Shanghai who said that it’s been some of the most pristine blue skies that they remember over the winter.”

With these environmental changes drastically reducing the impact of global warming around the world, it begs the question: Are these changes temporary, or here to stay? And if they are purely circumstantial, what can they teach us about our environmental impact and how we should reduce our carbon footprint for good?

Li Shuo, senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace, said that the environmental impacts of the pandemic are “hardly a sustainable way to reduce admissions.” 

Although these changes are wonderful developments in the fight against climate change, scientists are predicting that it will be difficult to make these improvements last after the pandemic is over. Though it is clear from the cleaner skies and clearer waters that social distancing is making a difference in our world, the economic pull on companies to get going and get back to work may overrule the environmental element. 

In an effort to kickstart the economy, companies may come back with lighter and more forgiving environmental policies rather than working with coal and other harmful fossil fuels. The Scientific American reported that “In 2009, the Great Recession pushed global emissions down almost 1%. The next year CO2 levels rose by roughly 5%, as governments around the world enacted stimulus measures to prop up their economies.” 

If history repeats itself, it could mean without the help of governments around the globe, our planet could fail to learn its lesson and prove our environmental situation to be well beyond sustainably fixable.

Although planet Earth will not likely leave quarantine with long lasting environmental benefits, we can learn from the current situation and see what our world would look like when major changes are enacted. Executive director of the U.N. Environmental program, Inger Anderson, said that “Only long term systemic shifts will change the trajectory of CO2 levels in the atmosphere.” 

In order to witness any sort of a long term effect on our environment, governments, companies and consumers need to do their part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on both local and worldwide scales. Learning from our current circumstances could be the only way to save our environment and see positive change come from an extremely negative situation.