The coronavirus pandemic, also known as COVID-19, has completely changed life as we know it. If we try to look back at our lives, and how we used to live just six months ago, we will realise that our lives have changed beyond recognition. The coronavirus outbreak has changed the world in pathbreaking ways. Global trade has been significantly impacted, severe restrictions are being placed on travel, and even the way we work has undergone an enormous change. Those who have the privilege of working from their homes are doing so. However, the others have lost their jobs and are filing for unemployment. Amidst all this chaos caused by the virus outbreak and the government measures being taken to prevent its spread, another interesting phenomenon has been observed – over the last few months, the environment has been seeing some visible, positive effects due to the large-scale impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, like country-wide lockdowns, halt in economic activity etc.
Impacts of Coronavirus on the Environment
Governments around the world had to enforce severe restrictions on movement of the people in order to curb the spread of the virus. Since the number of people stepping out of their homes and engaging in regular activities has significantly reduced, the environment has undergone several changes. These sudden changes have given rise many important to questions; are all these changes positive, and if the positive changes are sustainable?
Here are some of the most significant environmental changes that have been observed in the months following the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Drop in Air Pollution – The massive drop in air pollution is the most noted environmental impact of the coronavirus outbreak. Many countries around the world, especially developed, developing, and industrial nations, such as China, India, the US, and some other European countries have seen a significant drop in air pollution due to the large scale shutdown of industrial activity (ESA). The most significant decrease in Nitrogen Dioxide, a gas produced by industrial processes, has been observed in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak. The city had been under a strict lockdown since January, and most of its 11 million inhabitants had been confined to their homes. Hong Kong witnessed a decrease in NO2 levels upto 22% and PM2.5 (fine particle pollutant) by 32%, while PM10 (larger particle pollutant) by 29%. (CNN) In China, the Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions were down by 25% during the period Feb-Mar 2020. (CNN)
Another factor that has contributed to the drop in air pollution is a significant reduction in air travel. In many countries around the world, most flights had been cancelled. As a result, issues related to aircraft emissions saw a steep reduction. It is estimated that 67 million fewer passengers flew in the first three months of 2020 than the previous year (ACI Europe). The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has predicted that the industry could lose upwards of $113 billion this year. According to NASA, satellite data shows a 30% drop in air pollution over Northeast US (as shown in the images below).
- Reduced Water Pollution – The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unexpected effect on several water bodies around the world. For example, in Venice, Italy, owing to reduced water-traffic, the canals were observed to be clearer during the lockdown than ever before in recent history. This was triggered due to the decrease in the number of tourists visiting Venice. Since most motorboats and ships had been grounded, the sediment churning, and other water pollutants had significantly reduced. As a result, more fish could be seen in the water bodies. Such effects had been observed in various places across the world.
- Lower Emissions from Coal Combustion – The Coronavirus crisis had resulted in a significant drop in global coal consumption. As a result, airborne pollutants such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrous oxides had considerably reduced. The air quality in the affected regions has improved a lot. At present, China is the biggest consumer of coal. Between February and March this year, China’s coal-powered stations saw a 36% drop in consumption (CarbonBrief).
- Drop in Energy Consumption – As more governments placed people under lockdowns, the energy consumption profiles were disrupted. Owing to more people working from home, domestic energy consumption increased sharply. It has risen by approximately 8% in the US alone (Axios). However, commercial energy consumption has plummeted by 30% due to fewer people utilising commercial services. Ultimately, the drop in energy consumption will conserve energy.
- Disruption in weather forecasting – A sharp drop in the operations of commercial airlines, that majorly contribute in keeping a record and forecasting weather conditions, has had a strong impact on the forecasting capabilities. In the long term, extended lockdowns can lead to lags in the weather analysis. Travel restrictions mean that scientists can no longer conduct experiments that collect and measure the weather, current and several other oceanic properties. As stated by The Met Office, the drop in the aircraft observations can result the forecast error to increase by 1-2%. (The Weather Channel).
- Cutting down on food waste & travelling – Coronavirus pandemic has introduced some lasting habits in people across the world. Coincidentally, these habits are having a positive effect on the environment. Since people have been indulging in stockpiling due to nationwide lockdowns, a sense of rationing and wise utilization of food has infused into people’s minds. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agriculture contributes to approximately one-third of the greenhouse emissions, out of which 30% of the produce gets wasted. If people across the globe stop wasting food, 8% of the total emissions could be eliminated (BBC).
- Less background noise leads to better earthquake detection – One of the most astonishing effects of the coronavirus-induced lockdown, noticed by geophysicists, is the reduction of the background noises by at least one-third (BBVA Openmind). As a result, the weaker seismic movements and volcanic activity can be monitored more accurately. Obviously, this effect is transitory and will vanish once the world normalizes but, currently the surface seismic detectors have a sensitivity similar to the ones buried underground.
- Reduced Greenhouse gas emission – With the businesses and industries shutting down, a sudden drop in the greenhouse gas emissions has been recorded across the world. New York has witnessed a 50% drop in the pollution levels (BBC). Transport is one of the major producers of greenhouse gases, making up around 23% of global carbon emissions (IPCC). In the transport sector, aviation and driving are the two major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions – 11% and 72% respectively (IPCC). Due to travel restrictions, curfews and lockdowns unnecessary travel has reduced, in-turn reducing the emission of Greenhouse gases.
- Increase in organic and inorganic waste – An increase in activities such as online shopping and home delivery of food & groceries has led to the rise of inorganic as well as organic waste from households. Even the medical waste is increasing sharply. During the coronavirus outbreak peak in China, medical waste was being produced at an average of 240 metric tons per day (ScienceDirect). In USA, PPEs, masks and gloves have increased garbage.
Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, all economic activity has slowed down significantly. As economic activity slows down, a drop in emissions and pollution can be observed. However, these changes are temporary. Once the situation at hand is dealt with, and economic activity comes back to normal, these positive effects of the pandemic will no longer be sustainable. While it is true that most of its environmental impacts have been positive, there are a few that are negative. Since the virus began to spread at an exponential rate, several companies in the food industry have stopped accepting reusable cups and cutlery from their consumers. They are disposed of after a single-use. This has been done to prevent the spread of the virus. The same principle is also being used by the medical industry to prevent further contamination. Therefore, a mountain of waste has started to pile up.
Source: WeForum, Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS); ECMWF
How we can sustain the positive effects of the Coronavirus pandemic on our environment?
As the environment gets a break from the pollution due to the reduced human activities, experts have started to ponder about the impact of Coronavirus on the environment in the long-term. Questions such as will we be able to sustain the positive effects of the lockdown or will the world indulge in ‘revenge pollution’, are being debated upon. The structural changes that will drive the world towards net-zero emissions, which need to be adapted by the citizens are still under a pall of uncertainty.
Even though the short-term implications are easily visible, the long-term impact is hard to fathom. Some experts believe that this is just a ‘cyclic blip’ and the world will recoil back to where it was soon enough. Fascinatingly, this isn’t the first time a pandemic has impacted the environment. Epidemics in the 14th century such as Black Death in Europe and in 16th century – Smallpox in South America had a drastic impact on the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, as stated by Julia Pongratz, physical geography professor at University of Munich, Germany. A similar trend was also seen during the 2008 recession. In 2008, there was again an immense drop in the global emissions, which was largely due to the reduction in industrial activity. The 2008 financial crash resulted in the overall emissions to drop by 1.3% (BBC) but, as the economy recovered slowly, by 2010, the numbers increased to an all-time high.
The scenario with Coronavirus pandemic is likely to be the same as production is expected to pick up its pace soon. Since, it’s difficult to predict the end of this pandemic, the degree of bouncing back to the earlier levels of emissions is something only time will tell. If the pandemic continues till the end of 2020 then it could result in the consumer demand remaining low due to loss of income and increase in unemployment. According to Glen Peters, researcher at Center for International Climate and Environment Research in Oslo, the global emissions in 2020 will drop by 0.3% – that’s 1% less than the drop witnessed during 2008.
Now that a more pressing concern of “saving life” has taken precedence, people could also push away the thoughts of climate change. This pandemic is possibly one of the worst ways of lowering the emissions. No-one would have thought that the environment would get better this way. Coronavirus has taken a drastic toll on people’s lives, jobs as well as mental health. If not anything else, the pandemic has taught us that coming together as a community can help make a difference.
The pandemic has shown us how the world might look like with less air pollution. People in Nepal have claimed to see the Mount Everest since the pollution haze has reduced. The answer to the question of sustainability of the positive effects is in the hands of governments and businesses – basically the citizens of the Earth, to choose what needs to be done differently when the pandemic ends. That is how we can ensure that we ‘hold on’ to the temporary improvements in the environment.
Dr. Siddhartha Dutta