June 5th marks World Environment Day, and this year is undoubtedly a little different than most. The theme for this year is ‘Time for Nature’ and links human health to the wellbeing of our shared world.

As much of the globe still battles with the coronavirus outbreak, there has been a small sliver of hopefulness as we watched nature take a breather from human activity. From clearer skies to a resurgence of animals, it seemed that there was a – admittedly dim – light at the end of the tunnel.

But, unfortunately, it didn’t last long.

Oil Spills in Arctic

Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has declared a state of emergency after 20,000 tonnes of diesel oil spilled into a river within the Arctic Circle last week.

The spill happened when a fuel tank near the Siberian city of Norilsk collapsed. It was most likely caused by the ground substance beneath the tank, as the Arctic permafrost melts faster due to the abnormally warm weather for this time of the year.

Even worse, it took two days for authorities to be informed of the spill. The Russian Investigative Committee has launched a criminal case due to negligence and the harmful levels of pollution.

Greenpeace have compared the disaster to the 1989 Exxon Valdez Disaster in Alaska which is considered one of the worst oil spills in terms of its impact on the environment.

Air Pollution Returns to China

As the first country impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak, China’s efficiency in tackling the virus has led to the nation slowly returning to normalcy. However, that comes with some detrimental disadvantages including a return of pre-pandemic air pollution levels. Air pollution is responsible for the deaths of millions every year, and in 2015, it contributed to the premature deaths of 1.1 million people.

Data from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air has revealed that at the height of China’s lockdown, fine particles (PM 2.5) were down by 34% in early March in comparison to the same period in 2019. Similarly, nitrogen levels were also down by 38%.

However, as industries reopen, data has shown that the concentration of these dangerous airborne particles has reached pre-COVID levels. Experts have warned that we could see the same in Europe as several countries re-emerge from weeks of quarantine.

Lastly, coal consumption at five of Eastern China’s major power plants has risen above 2019 levels.

Weakening Environmental Protections

Despite the United States being on the world’s worst emitters of greenhouse houses, the Trump administration has continuously rolled back environmental protections that have aimed to curb climate change and limit environmental pollution. And even amidst a global pandemic – environmental protections are still being scaled back.

Recently, the Trump administration invoked special powers under the coronavirus emergency to limit environmental oversight for projects. This would enable the construction of highways and other major projects without environmental reviews.

In another bizarre move, the US Environmental Protection Agency proposed adapting the way the agency reviews new rules on air pollutants. Environmentalists believe that this will make it harder in the future to pass limits on climate changing emissions.

If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that there must be an overhaul of our global structures that favour business and industry above the health of humanity and the preservation of our Earth. While the COVID-19 outbreak has enabled us to vision a nature renaissance, we’ll have to adapt a policy of green economy if we want to sustain it. However, if the recent developments are any indication, humanity still has a long road ahead.   

Aisha Mohamed