Less pollution during COVID-19 is not a 'silver lining', says UN environment chief

The environmental benefits of the coronavirus pandemic are only temporary, warns the head of the UN Environment Programme.

NASA and European Space Agency (ESA)
  • Satellite imagery shows that significantly lower air pollution over much of the planet in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • As the U.S. was preparing an economic stimulus package for struggling Americans, some lawmakers tried in vain to include environmental provisions.
  • Whether now is an appropriate time to consider restructuring the economy and energy infrastructure is a controversial topic.


The COVID-19 pandemic has produced surreal images: Mask-wearing shoppers stocking up on toilet paper and canned food. City streets, once bustling, now empty. Semi-trucks parked on sidewalks, converted into temporary morgues.

But zoom out far enough, and the images of the pandemic tell a different story — one with clearer skies.

NASA and the European Space Agency recently released satellite imagery showing how the slowing of the global economy has significantly reduced air pollution over China, Italy, the U.S., and other nations. The images show drastic drops in nitrogen dioxide, which is produced mainly by cars, trucks, buses, power plants, and off-road equipment, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

However, the head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Inger Andersen, warns against viewing this as a "silver lining."

"And as we inch from a 'war-time' response to 'building back better,' we need to take on board the environmental signals and what they mean for our future and wellbeing, because COVID-19 is by no means a 'silver lining' for the environment," Andersen wrote in a recent blog post. "Visible, positive impacts – whether through improved air quality or reduced greenhouse gas emissions – are but temporary, because they come on the back of tragic economic slowdown and human distress."

The relationship between pandemics and the environment

Andersen noted two key reasons why the environment is directly relevant to the spread of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. First, as human development continues to creep into new ecosystems, it's bound to put people in close contact with wildlife, which is how zoonotic viruses spread.

"According to IPBES, we have seen 100 million hectares of agricultural expansion in the tropics between 1980 and 2000, roughly equal to the size of France and Germany combined," Andersen wrote. "The 'wild' must be kept 'wild.' It is time to restore our forests, stop deforestation, invest in the management of protected areas, and propel markets for deforestation-free products. Where the legal wildlife trade chain exists, we need to do a far better job of improving hygiene conditions."

The blog post also noted that global warming is making it easier for dangerous microbes to survive in the environment.

For Anderson, the pandemic presents an opportunity to redirect the economy toward a greener future:

"So, in the aftermath of the crisis, when economic stimulus packages composed of infrastructure are designed, there is a real opportunity to meet that demand with green packages of renewable energy investments, smart buildings, green and public transport, etc.."

When the U.S. government was preparing its recent economic stimulus package, House Democrats sought to include some environmental provisions, such as requiring airlines to lower emissions, putting $100 million toward developing sustainable aviation fuels, and allocating aid money for the national wind and solar industries.

Ultimately, these measures didn't make it into the package. Some lawmakers and commentators criticized Democrats for trying to weave environmental protections into an urgently needed bill designed to help financially struggling Americans. (Although, to be sure, Republicans had pet projects of their own which they sought to include in the bill.)

Currently, it's unclear whether measures that would aid U.S. renewable energy companies will be included in future stimulus packages.

The pandemic is a 'portal'

As the economy continues to spiral and U.S. unemployment reaches a record high, is now the time to consider making massive changes to the ways we envision our society? One interesting answer comes from Indian author Arundhati Roy.

In a recent piece in the Financial Times, Roy writes that the pandemic is a "portal, a gateway between one world and the next." Roy makes no explicit mention of the environment or climate change, and he's not necessarily suggesting that efforts to restructure society should take priority over, say, aid packages to citizens. But he does argue that we shouldn't aim to return to "normality" as the global community begins to repair the damage caused by the pandemic:

"Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to 'normality', trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it."

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
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Divers discover world's largest underwater cave system filled with Mayan mysteries

Researchers in Mexico discover the longest underwater cave system in the world that's full of invaluable artifacts. 

Divers of the GAM project. Credit: Herbert Meyrl.
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

Bottles of antidepressant pills named (L-R) Wellbutrin, Paxil, Fluoxetine and Lexapro are shown March 23, 2004 photographed in Miami, Florida.

Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A new review found that withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants and antipsychotics can last for over a year.
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