What is the effect that COVID-19 has had on our planet?

Written by Sophie Barrow

What is the effect that COVID-19 has had on our planet?

Our entire way of life has changed dramatically in 2020 due to Coronavirus, but it’s not just humans that the virus has impacted. Our planet has also seen some benefits and drawbacks to this new way of living.

 In this article, I have tried to collate some of the research and articles that show the effect on our planet that COVID-19 has had, both positive and negative.

 So what impact has COVID-19 had on our environment?

The lockdown that many of us faced was tough, but for our cities and the environment around us, it did see some benefits. Pollution in New York, for instance, reduced by nearly 50% compared to the previous year because of the measure that was put in place to help keep us safe. In China, as people were instructed to stay home and factories closed, six of the largest power plants saw their coal usage fall by almost 40% and emissions fell 25%.

Our cities saw better quality air up by almost 11.4% and in Europe, satellite imagery showed that effect that lockdown measures had had on places like northern Italy, where Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) began to fade away.  

Whilst all of these things are certainly a “benefit” to our environment a global pandemic, loss of jobs and a stalling economy is not a particularly healthy way to bring about global environmental change. We are also currently in the dark about how such a dip might continue as we begin to “bounce back” or at least move forwards to a new normal.  For instance, transport makes up 23% of global carbon emissions and out of this, it is aviation and driving that contribute 72% and 11% of these emissions. Whilst people might not be flying and driving as much now, we cannot know how things will change in the future, and with a heightened awareness of contagion and how infectious diseases spread will more people opt for their own car in future over public transport?

Whilst the lockdown has seen animals previously enslaved for animal tourism enjoy a brief relief from being paraded for tourists, and our wildlife might have enjoyed the respite from human intrusion, the pandemic has left some species at high risk due to an increase in wildlife poaching. Sadly in many developing countries around the world, the lockdown has led to concerns that endangered species are vulnerable and no longer as well protected.

The virus and ensuing lockdown and focus it has been given has sadly allowed for illegal deforestation operations and in Brazil as with the rising cases we have seen increasingly rampant forest fires and deforestation, satellite imagery saw a steep surge in deforestation and sees President Bolsonaro making good on his campaign promise to loosen policy around protected areas and environmental law enforcement. A grim and sad story for the many indigenous people and animals who call the rainforest their home.

On a positive note, those who found themselves unemployed (like labourers) in Pakistan were offered the opportunity by the government to work on 10 Billion Trees Tsunami campaign which aims to plant 10 billion trees over the next 5 years.

Our oceans and seas have certainly seen some short-term benefits in terms of falling fishing, fewer cargo ships and coastal tourism seeing a dip, however, it is unclear how this will be affected when things change and life goes back to “normal” or new normal. With many peoples livelihoods threatened it is not clear what will happen and almost 150,000 seafarers have been stuck on board for several months much to the detriment of their physical and mental well-being. Our increased use in masks has seen a negative (though currently small) effect on our oceans as masks that are not properly disposed of are finding their way into our waters, and this spike in ocean pollution is only adding to the glut of waste our waters are already contending with. So with our increased use in the consumption of plastic gloves and disposable masks, it is important that we make sure we discard of them carefully, or if possible purchase reusable ones. 

It is ultimately up to us to help keep the environmental benefits that COVID has seen to, whilst making more sustainable choices for the future (including the masks we use and how we dispose of them) while we work towards a more sustainable future of us and the planet.

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