We are living through unprecedented times. On 11 March 2020, COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, was declared a pandemic. At the time of writing, over 2 and a half million people across the world have been infected, with many countries in lockdown to prevent the disease spreading. The impact on lives and society is clear, with people altering their work and travelling habits on one hand and on the other, entering periods of concern and grief. However, the complete shift away from life as we knew it has had considerable influence far past human civilisation.
How is the environment influenced by the coronavirus pandemic?
Along with every other aspect of life, the environment is severely affected by the coronavirus. Though, along with the negatives, is there a thin, if any, silver lining? Below, we explore the impacts on three key topics: greenhouse gas emissions, energy and waste.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
People across the world are changing their everyday behaviour to different extents, from social distancing to complete lockdown. With a large shift towards working from home and a pause placed on all non-essential outdoor activities, travel of all forms is decreasing. With less use of buses, trains, cars and planes, air pollution levels have been declining.
According to the European Space Agency, nitrous oxide, a pollutant 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, has levels 40% lower than this time last year over Milan. Similar decreases are observed in other cities, including Paris and Madrid. Across the pond, comparable declines are noted in New York City, with pollution levels down 50% compared to this time last year.
In China, during the height of their pandemic in February, carbon emissions were 25% lower than the previous year (Morningstar Inc.). Improvements in air quality may have saved the lives of 4,000 children under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70 (Marshall Burke, Stanford University), considerably more lives compared to those sadly taken by coronavirus in China. However, this may not be all good news, as emissions in China are now rising to normal levels, as the peak of the pandemic has passed.
If we think back to the 2008 recession, which is somewhat comparable to what we are experiencing today, global emissions reduced by 2% but then rose by 6% to make up for lost productivity (Tyndall Centre for Climate Change). The Global Carbon Project predicts that a more drastic carbon dioxide fall of 5% could happen following the pandemic. Like the last recession, this drop is said to be short-lived and without major structural changes, the decrease will sadly have little impact on the fact that carbon dioxide has been accumulating in the atmosphere for decades.
Owing to the pandemic, patterns of electricity and heating demand have been shifting away from industrial use to household consumption as more people work from home. Such a drastic change in behaviour has caused an overall global decrease in consumption. Comparing demand to last year, China exhibited a 36% decrease in February coal consumption (Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air) and the current global oil demand is over 1 million fewer barrels per day (IEA).
This may seem like good news to environmentally conscious individuals, but lower demand for fossil fuels has resulted in a price drop, with US oil prices trading below zero for the first time. With prices down, it is likely that fossil fuel consumption will increase as the global economy tries to recover, likely negatively impacting renewable investment. Bloomberg New Energy Finance have therefore predicted a 16% drop in solar installations this year compared to their original forecast. To ensure green generation is prioritised during the recovery period, governments will need to launch sustainable stimulus packages focused on clean technologies. As shown by IEA analysis, 70% of the world’s clean energy investments are driven by government policy, so government must take a lead in ensuring our renewable future.
As energy demand lessens, one would assume that large-scale technological development would come to a halt. Yet, the mass standstill is being taken advantage of by some. The Keystone XL pipeline, a widely opposed pipeline that plans to bring tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, is trying to benefit from the pandemic by kickstarting the project amidst a time with no protesters.
Workers from across America have been flown to rural states with strained health care systems by pretending their work is essential, increasing the risk of individuals who have essential travel or work needs. Not only that, but pipeline work is conducted on the edges of Native American populations who are already suffering from coronavirus due to existing health disparities and crowded living situations. With a large part of the United States on lockdown and focused on coronavirus, there are no protesters and limited media coverage. We hope that this project and other similar ones do not use a global pandemic to push their financially led agenda.
With fears of contamination, waste from single-use products is on the rise. At the start of the outbreak, companies like Starbucks, among others, stopped accepting reusable cups in concern that they would transmit the virus. Household waste is also increasing, as individuals are likely to purchase packaged goods over loose items due to the perception of increased safety. Households are buying larger quantities of cleaning and health items, including toilet paper and cleaning supplies, as well as packaged foods. Despite this, food waste has also increased, owing to a nosedive in demand from restaurants and schools, which has caused farmers to pour fresh milk down the sink and plough vegetables back into the soil.
As single-use plastic products are believed to prevent the spread of the virus, there have been delays on single-use plastic product bans in the United States and Europe. However, research from the National Institutes of Health, CDC, UCLA and Princeton University have found that the virus can live on plastic surfaces for up to three days longer than other materials.
Medical waste including face masks and tissues is notably increasing — quantities quadrupled to more than 200 tons a day at the peak of Wuhan’s outbreak. Medical waste is burned instead of recycling to prevent contamination, contributing to toxic emissions. The public is also using gloves and face masks daily, many of which are being littered across our streets.
Positive or negative?
Although pollution and energy consumption are decreasing, the influence of coronavirus on the environment seems, unfortunately, more negative than positive. With 7 in 10 businesses planning to partially or fully pause sustainability announcements (edie survey) and the prospect of small, innovative environmental businesses uncertain, the future sustainable workforce may well look considerably different from today. The UN Climate Change Convention, COP26, an important climate change negotiations conference that was due to take place in Glasgow this November has been postponed. However, we cannot be disheartened in our strive for change and we must remember the wise words of UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa:
“COVID-19 is the most urgent threat facing humanity today, but we cannot forget that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity over the long term.”