This trend report concerns the effects that COVID-19 has had on the natural environment and implications for the future.

First, its focus is on how it has inadvertently reduced carbon emissions. Second, it illustrates that although CO2 levels have decreased there is still work to be done. Third, the change that the pandemic has made already does present an opportunity for green investment and innovation but contrastingly has reversed plastic bag bans. Fourth, the report highlights the new coronavirus could harm other species. Finally, the article considers how we could move forward.

The COVID-19 outbreak has seen widespread changes in processes worldwide, not just of humans, but of the natural environment too. With employees advised to work from home and non-essential travel curbed, congestion has drastically reduced, and there have been significant improvements in air quality worldwide. From 10–25 February, satellite images of various countries from NASA’s Earth Observatory[1] and the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite [2] highlighted substantial reductions in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels, after the outbreak of COVID-19. These images show the NO2 concentrations from 13 March until 13 April 2020, compared to the data from the previous year. Madrid, Milan and Rome saw decreases in NO2 levels of around 45%, while Paris saw a staggering 54% drop attributable to the strict quarantine measures across Europe.

“fossil fuel use would have to fall by approximately 10% globally and be sustained for a year to have a significant effect on CO2 levels”

The drop in emissions also means CO2 levels have fallen. However, this is no cause for celebration yet. On 5 April, The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) head, Inger Andersen and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography warned that fossil fuel use would have to fall by approximately 10% globally and be sustained for a year to have a significant effect on CO2 levels.[3] On the subject of CO2 emissions, the outbreak has disrupted environmental conferences and other diplomatic efforts, the most notable being the postponement of the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly known as COP26, which was due to be held in Glasgow this year[4].

Furthermore, the economic standstill the virus has brought with it could slow investment in technologies promoting green energy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) is advising governments to offer economic stimulus packages that encourage investment in clean energy technologies to prevent the clean energy movement from being brought to a standstill[5].

Picture by Sergio Souza

Furthermore, this crisis has produced a worrying increase in the use o of plastic. In March and April, several US states and cities such as Maine and Massachusetts decided to roll back and repeal bans on plastic bags, citing the coronavirus [6]. According to Greenpeace USA, articles warning that reusable tote bags are worse than plastic ones for spreading coronavirus have surfaced, with possible links to the Manhattan Institute, aimed at defeating or repealing plastic bag bans.[7] Similarly in Europe, the European lobby group for plastic manufacturers wants the European Commission and member countries to delay upcoming regulations and to lift all bans on some single-use plastic items in the wake of the outbreak.[8]

“There is also concern about the effects that SARS- Cov- 2 could have on other mammals”

There is also concern about the effects that SARS- Cov- 2 could have on other mammals. Conservation experts on 25 March called for a suspension of tourism and field research focused on great apes to maximize conservation efforts. It is unknown whether the morbidity and mortality associated with SARS-CoV-2 in humans could have similar effects on apes. Still, the transmission of even mild human pathogens to apes, our closest living relative, could lead to unwarranted moderate-to-severe outcomes on them.[9]

The change in lifestyle that has accompanied COVID-19, whether welcome or not, has had both positive and negative effects on the environment. Where the positive effects are concerned, celebrations may be short-lived, as countries will seek to ramp up efforts to make up for their dwindling economies post-lockdown, cancelling out any gains made for the environment thus far. The path to recovery must be constructed keeping the tenets of sustainability in mind. We must embrace the opportunity this crisis has presented to prevent ecological devastation.

By Alicia Ramos

A contributor and member of the Public Health Pathways team











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