By Claire Floras
Since the mid-1850s carbon in the atmosphere has increased the global temperature by over 1°C (McGrath, 2020). Future projections predict an increase of 3-4°C by the end of the century if there is no effort to reduce global emissions (McGrath, 2020). These are both well-known statistics that have recently been reaching a larger global audience as the COVID-19 lockdowns highlighted significant—yet temporary—reductions in CO2 emissions. No previous global event has impacted greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as much as COVID-19, but the pandemic has also amplified and created other environmental concerns in a wide range of areas discussed below (McGrath, 2020).
1. Cleaner air – for the time being
As cities across the world locked down to combat the threat of Covid-19, there was a marked reduction in GHG emissions. Cities noted having cleaner air, cleaner public spaces, and a drop in noise pollution (Zambrano-Monserrate, Ruano, & Sanchez-Alcalde, 2020). This sudden shift in GHG emissions was important in demonstrating the need for future changes in city emission habits but did not produce any benefits in the long term. The reduction had no impact on GHGs that have previously been accumulating in the atmosphere so by the time the pandemic reached mid-June, GHG levels were already restored to just 5% below the previous year’s levels (Zambrano-Monserrate, Ruano, & Sanchez-Alcalde, 2020) (Gardiner, 2020). Shutting down industries helped to reduce our emissions but there can be no permanent change until we shift away from the industries upon which we currently depend (Gardiner, 2020).
2. Bad news for the renewable energy sector
The renewable energy sector has suffered many losses since the onset of the pandemic: capacity increase estimates for 2020 are projected to decrease by 4.9GW in wind energy and by 28% in solar energy (Eroğlu, 2020). Green energy has struggled with supply chain delays, an uncertain market, a drop in energy demand from lockdowns, and the risk of the inability to benefit from government incentives at the end of this year (Eroğlu, 2020). On the other hand, oil and gas companies have received benefits including tax breaks and breaks on royalties required to mine on public land (Gardiner, 2020). In the US, the administration has suspended enforcement of air and water pollution regulations and requirements for environmental review of projects such as mines, highways, and pipelines (Gardiner, 2020). The government has been able to push these changes forward with little resistance as public attention is focused on the COVID-19 outbreak (Gardiner, 2020). In Europe, the focus has also shifted to the pandemic and away from the environment (Gardiner, 2020). In China, despite a recent announcement regarding GHG emission goals, pollution levels rebounded rapidly after the lockdown (Gardiner, 2020). New coal-fired power plants were even approved as the government looked for ways to boost the economy (Gardiner, 2020).
3. Less road travel, air travel, and use of public transit
During lockdowns at the beginning of the pandemic, people travelled much less on roads and by air than in past years. Average road transport activity dropped by 50% in March and demand for jet fuel dropped by 65% compared to the 2019 demand (McGrath, 2020). Now, as road and air travel are resuming and gradually increasing, there are new concerns over social distancing. Many people are avoiding the use of public transit because one is more likely to contract COVID-19 from a public space where contact tracing would be complicated (Gardiner, 2020). Going forward, the increase in vehicles on the road will correspondingly increase each country’s GHG emissions.
4. Growing deforestation concerns in the Amazon
64% more land was cleared in the Amazon in April 2020 than in April 2019 (Gardiner, 2020). This additional clearing comes even after 2019 was recorded globally as the biggest year for deforestation (Gardiner, 2020). Part of the issue arises from the government encouraging the land clearing and deliberately neglecting the environmental cost. Additionally, deforestation is known to be a cause of frequent wildfires in the area that have left many locals with respiratory issues (Gardiner, 2020). Now, those with prior respiratory concerns are even more at risk than previously with the threat of COVID-19.
5. Increased chlorination in wastewater
In China and other parts of the world, the threat of COVID-19 has led wastewater treatment plants to increase the strength of chlorination (Zambrano-Monserrate, Ruano, & Sanchez-Alcalde, 2020). This comes despite the fact that there is no evidence for a correlation between contracting COVID-19 and drinking water (Zambrano-Monserrate, Ruano, & Sanchez-Alcalde, 2020). Chlorine has a harmful impact on human health and the environment, and increased usage will cause the surrounding environment to deteriorate more rapidly than before.
6. PPE-related waste generation
Since the outset of the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in waste production. Single-use plastic bags became even more common as businesses and companies no longer allowed people to bring their own reusable bags over concerns of spreading the virus (Zambrano-Monserrate, Ruano, & Sanchez-Alcalde, 2020). Increased usage of disposable cups, more frequent ordering of food online, and growing household online shipping and delivery orders have also contributed to the rising quantity of waste that has been generated during the pandemic. In particular, ordering anything through online services requires plastic packaging for delivery. Medical waste has also increased. Wuhan hospitals typically generate a maximum of 50 tons of medical waste per day – the pandemic has increased this number to 240 metric tons (Zambrano-Monserrate, Ruano, & Sanchez-Alcalde, 2020). The US and other countries have also seen an increased amount of PPE-related waste mainly in the form of masks and gloves. Masks are typically made of polypropylene, which does not readily biodegrade (Eroğlu, 2020). Waste is proven to relate to environmental issues that include soil erosion, deforestation, water pollution, and air pollution (Zambrano-Monserrate, Ruano, & Sanchez-Alcalde, 2020).
7. Reduction in the global recycling program use
Another aspect of the waste generation problem is a reduction in recycling. Some US cities have suspended recycling programs in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. In Europe, many sustainable waste management policies have been restricted (Zambrano-Monserrate, Ruano, & Sanchez-Alcalde, 2020). In particular, Italy required infected residents to leave their waste unsorted. While these policies prioritize the importance of global health, they come at an environmental cost.
8.Green recovery potential
The current global priority is health. However, there is a future potential for a green recovery (McGrath, 2020). Allocating recovery funds toward jobs in the renewable energy sector will be necessary to combat climate change and work toward a world where it does not take a global pandemic to cause a reduction in air pollution.