The Impact of COVID-19 on Our Natural Environment by Silvia Milanova, July 04 2020, 2 Comments

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COVID-19 has transformed the world as we knew it. And although some of the changes won’t be clear until much later, other effects are already visible. One area vastly impacted by the pandemic is the environment.

People in 216 countries, areas or territories have been directly impacted by COVID-19. And while humans have been hibernating for the last few months, nature seems to be taking a much-needed breather. A breath of fresh(er) air, one might say. But beneath the surface of this seemingly greener, cleaner Earth, lurk developments that continue to fuel the climate crisis.

The Good Stuff

Ten of the most polluted cities in the world have seen clear blue skies.

Since early 2020, most countries with cases have adopted a variation of physical distancing and lockdowns. Some, like Sweden, kept their businesses open, while others, such as China—where the virus allegedly originated—closed down the entire country with very strict stay-at-home orders. This overall decrease in human, vehicle, ocean and air traffic has indirectly affected global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The decrease in pollution is clearly noticeable, especially in major cities and countries where previously the air quality was alarmingly poor. These changes, however, are likely temporary and will return to their pre-pandemic levels once normal human activities resume.

Beaches have less waste and the world in general is a bit quieter.

With minimal or no tourism, beaches such as those in Mexico and Spain are seeing cleaner shores. A decrease in domestic travel, transportation use and commercial activities have also reduced vibrations on Earth and overall noise. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is doing similar research underwater; changes to ocean acoustics. Their goal is to “measure changes and assess any impacts on fisheries and marine mammal activity due to reduced maritime transportation and other maritime activities.” But again, if any, these changes are temporary and when businesses fully reopen and people’s previous activities pick up, the postponed waste will find itself on beaches once more. The vibrations on Earth will start again and Earth and the oceans will be louder.

The (Not so Clearly Seen Yet) Negatives

While people in North America are practicing their DIY skills inside, everything outside is not all well. Many efforts to slow down the climate crisis and lead the world to net-zero emissions (and limit global warming increase to 1.5°C), are falling behind stronger efforts—and funding—to fight COVID-19.

Policies for radical steps to combat climate crisis have halted.

Global climate change and biodiversity meetings have been postponed or canceled altogether. In an effort to decrease or stop the spread of the virus, everyone, including governments and policymakers, have practiced social distancing. This means that physical events have been moved to later in the year or even to 2021 and beyond. Some of these meetings have been able to be virtual, but most planned gatherings were unable to happen. Current policies and efforts in many countries, including the US, have also been relaxed. This slows down progress to address the climate change threat that affects all of humanity.

Recycling and composting have taken a step back.

Working remotely is not possible for crucial public services. Social distancing for essential businesses, however, may result in a reduced labor force. This means that there is a shortage of people who usually work in government facilities, such as post offices. This has also hit the recycling sector and composting sector. Some companies are refusing to pick up loose recyclable items, while others have shut down recycling programs altogether. Residents of those municipalities, such as Philadelphia, are throwing their recyclables in the trash. All of this extra waste ends up in landfills where it contributes to climate change.

Similarly, on May 4th, the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) suspended its curbside composting program due to budget cuts and to devote funding to essential services. In a press release, the department encouraged residents to throw away food scraps and yard waste in the trash. Currently, this suspension will expire on June 30, 2021. However, DSNY also indefinitely suspended pick-up appointments for its curbside electronics collection.

Increased single-use plastic waste. Decreased use of reusable bags.

Most conventional non-medical grade masks and gloves are made of plastic (polypropylene ) — which is not widely recycled and could stay in the environment for hundreds of years if it breaks down fully at all. Disposable wipes, such as disinfecting wipes people are using to clean surfaces and groceries, are also usually made of plastic, or a mix of different materials. A rapid surge in the use and disposal of these items has been recorded since COVID-19 first emerged as a global threat. Now, personal protective equipment (PPE) waste can be seen littering streets and posing a serious environmental hazard, as well as a personal health hazard for the people who have to pick up this trash.

In addition, because restaurants have been closed for dining in, people are ordering more takeout for delivery. This results in a surplus of one-time-use waste such as takeout containers, utensils, condiment packets and the external packaging.

Finally, municipalities are banning the use of reusable grocery bags, while some states are postponing plastic bag bans amid the pandemic. This is due to the public fear of coming into contact with virus particles leftover on surfaces. Although this is not the main method of spreading or contracting the virus, stores and governments are doing what they can to prevent unnecessary contact between humans.

Global temperatures continue to rise and set records.

Although a temporary reduction in carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions has been recorded in many places around the world, global carbon dioxide levels continue to rise rapidly. This short-term reduction will not do much to stop the climate crisis.

  • Arctic sea ice and glacier mass continue to decline
  • Yearly and monthly average global temperatures continue to rise
  • Energy consumption remains unchanged and still largely dependent on fossil fuels

Deforestation and other damage to forests and habitats.

A link has been found between the assault on nature/deforestation and the prevalence of diseases that originate in wild animals. This thinning spatial gap has made pathogens easier to jump from animals to humans. A bigger current issue, however, is the exploitation of natural resources during a global crisis. A pandemic like COVID-19 may force people in poor countries who have lost their jobs, to exploit natural resources to help them provide for their families. These citizens may not have the governmental support they need to stay financially stable—while meager government leadership may fail to properly implement environmental protection policies.

People become increasingly dependent on cutting down trees for fuel, food, shelter and work. Mette Wilkie, director of the forestry division at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that millions of people who have lost casual work in cities, return to rural areas and "the only social safety net they have is the waters, the land and the forest", as stated by the World Economic Forum. “That makes it more likely trees will be felled for food and fuel because a third of the world's people still depend on wood to cook,” said Wilkie.

Lessons to Learn. Actions to Take.

While everyone is waiting for things to go “back to normal”, it’s possible that at the end of this crisis, our world will be permanently changed. The environmental respite may be temporary, but there is hope that COVID-19 put everything on pause long enough for us to realize a few things:

  • We don’t need long commutes to do our work well; working from home can be just as productive and significantly less polluting
  • We can thrive while consuming less; buying fewer materialistic things while spending more valuable time with loved ones
  • We can successfully live in a slowed-down pace; cooking often at home; growing our own food; playing more with our children; sitting, breathing and taking in every precious moment we have on our beautiful planet

These seemingly minuscule actions can silently help give our planet that much-needed breath of fresh air it's been waiting for. The temporary halt in "normal" activity may not do enough to reverse major damage. But the temporary pause may change how we see our personal wellness and that of our planet. This, in turn, may become the force behind bigger shifts that return us on a healthy path. For more resources on COVID-19 and its impact on the environment, please visit the Geneva Environment Network.