COVID-19’s Impact on the Environment

It’s no doubt the recent coronavirus outbreak has impacted our daily lives in numerous ways. We are encouraged to self-isolate, people have lost their jobs or have been temporarily laid off, and with entire populations ordered to stay at home, effects on the environment and ecosystems are being observed around the globe. With travel bans, the closure of non-essential businesses and factories, and the diminished need for cars, buses and trains, the world’s air pollution level is improving while our greenhouse emissions are at the lowest they’ve been since the economic crash of 2008-2009. The improved air quality, especially in some major cities such as Wuhan, China, has been estimated to have saved the lives of 4,000 children under 5 years old and 73,000 adults over 70, as calculated by Marshall Burke, a researcher at Stanford University.

It’s not only the air quality improving. Numerous accounts have reported wildlife turning up in cities and animals rarely seen prior to the pandemic suddenly appearing in people’s backyards or in popular tourist destinations. The decrease in human activity, especially during breeding season, could allow some species to raise larger litters, while the reduction in traffic is reducing fatal collisions, in turn helping support numerous species including those listed as endangered. In addition, the chance to see wildlife in our yards adds an element of excitement and positivity to quarantine, and has proven to be a captivating game to play with children.

Despite this, coronavirus will in no way have a lasting impact on the environment. While greenhouse emissions may have been slashed in half and wildlife returned to popular tourist destinations, the volume of non-recyclable waste has risen, drastic cuts in agricultural and fishery exports have led to large quantities of organic waste, the maintenance and monitoring of natural ecosystems has been halted, and our energy usage is at an all time high.

The waste generated during the pandemic is adding to an increasingly dire situation as we see more and more plastic entering the oceans and landfills reaching capacity. Many grocery stores are encouraging customers to use single use plastic bags as opposed to reusable ones for fear the virus could spread, and numerous families are opting to have takeout, which often arrives in plastic or other non-recyclable containers. In the city of Wuhan, the surge of medical waste alone has quadrupled to more than 200 tons a day while single-use medical items that have been in contact with infected patients are required to be burned to prevent any contamination that could occur during recycling. Furthermore, the decrease in exports and trade has led to an increase in organic waste, a potentially serious issue as not only do we suffer from the loss of resources, but the decomposition of organic waste in a landfill also often produces methane, one of the post potent greenhouse gases.

With travel bans in place, ecotourism has of course come to a halt, resulting in ecosystems and endangered species being overlooked by governments and no longer being maintained or monitored. As stated in a recent news article in Sapiens, “As the coronavirus has spread, tourism sites throughout Asia, Europe, and the Americas have found their revenues nearly eliminated ... The ideal ecotourism model goes a little something like this: Communities establish tourism programs that employ local people, protect wild flora and fauna, and educate visitors about the ecosystems around them. In addition to a steady source of income for the community, ecotourism projects may also help fund conservation efforts such as reforestation, wildlife rehabilitation, and educational programs.” This could by consequence have devastating effects on conservation efforts and also on economies, especially in countries dependent on tourism and their wildlife, as there is also the question of needing to continue maintaining them once the pandemic is over and where the funds to so will come from.

With families confined to their homes all day, parents working from home and students learning via online platforms, it comes as no surprise that the world’s internet and energy usage has reached a peak. The staggering increase in internet usage has had an effect on our carbon footprint, and in the long run could significantly contribute to climate change and result in a reduction of supply. With governments currently setting their climate goals aside to focus on the current situation, our energy usage could very quickly cause bigger problems.

While the coronavirus pandemic is of course influencing our lives in much more pressing ways than by affecting our environment, it can occasionally be of help to see the positives of something, such as our reduced emissions and potentially life-saving improvements in air quality. While the effects on our climate may not be permanent, they have demonstrated that it is possible to reverse the damage done and provided a positive outlook we might retain after the pandemic.

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