Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA
COVID-19’s impact on humans has been detrimental. With the death toll surpassing a million and infection rates approaching 40 million, SARS-CoV-2 has significantly impacted humanity and fractured a sense of invincibility. However, an interesting statistic was announced by Nature on May 19, 2020. Since April of 2020, global carbon emissions have decreased by 17% with some countries even seeing a massive 26% drop in emissions. Undoubtedly, Covid-19 has impacted Earth with carbon-related, environmental, and ecological effects.
Over the past few months, global carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions have undoubtedly decreased. One would honestly expect the opposite to occur; after all, if more people are following lockdown and staying home. Wouldn’t our energy use and subsequently our carbon emissions go up? While household energy demands have increased by 22% since 2019, according to prnews.com such increases in energy usage have been counterbalanced by a sharp decline in transportation and aviation (according to Nature, 50% and 75% respectively). Hence overall, there has been a decrease in carbon emissions by 17%. So this begs the question: Will COVID-19 solve climate change? This doesn’t seem to be the case since the decreases in carbon emissions are only temporary. Current carbon concentrations in the atmosphere are 418 parts per million. Yet according to Carbonbrief, it would only be 0.4 parts per million higher without the virus-driven emissions drop–a drop in the bucket when tackling climate change. Current projections also state that even if lockdown continues to the end of the year, our global carbon emissions would only have dropped by 10%. The IPCC warns that we need to see a yearly decrease of 7.6% in carbon dioxide emissions every year till 0% if we want to avoid the drastic effects that climate change can cause. Thus while the COVID-19 lockdowns may have helped in decreasing CO2 emissions in the short term, they are ineffective at combating the issue of climate change.
In response to the covid pandemic, humans have been forced to cope up in our homes and lockdown. These periods of mass lockdowns have been the pretense to a rebound in nature’s recovery. Global air pollution and general pollution has plummeted substantially because of lockdowns. Northern Italy saw NO2 levels fall by about 10% each week as they lockdown on March 9 (cen.acs.org). In addition, the reduction in transportation and airline usage has been a particular boon to birds and other migratory animals allowing them safer access to the skies. According to global new.ca, Dolphins have been returning to Italy’s coast thanks to the drops in water pollution; just one of many examples of the short term benefits of lockdown. Economic fracturing has impeded global trade which has allowed oceanic environments to recover from the heavy sea traffic that was once present. Reductions in global trade have also decreased the need for natural resources and have stippled exploitive, environmentally damaging practices like the mining industry.
While COVID-19’s short term benefits of environmental recovery may seem potentially beneficial. The long term implications are quite grim in how COVID-19 may actually lead to more environmental devastation. Interestingly, while air pollution has decreased, waste products like used masks has been increased with the enforced lockdowns and safety guidelines. In addition, COVID-19 has led to an overall decrease in recycling and stippled governmental efforts in bioremediation. Beth Garder, a writer for the National Geographic, writes, “Now, ‘the risk is very high’ that carbon output could surge past pre-pandemic levels,” she says [Corinne Le Quéré], “‘…especially since we’ve done it in the past, not very long ago.’ During the 2007-08 financial crisis, emissions dropped but then bounced back.” In addition to potential carbon emission increases, COVID-19 may give environmentally harmful industries like mining, plastics, and automobiles greater lobbying power inside of governments because of their currently faltering position. It is very likely that these industries will become “bolder” and more profitable because of the reduction in restrictions that are introduced during covid times under the justification of company survival.
While COVID-19 lockdowns have provided some hope in the reduction in CO2 emission and environmental remediation. Ultimately, COVID-19 lockdowns aren’t the solution to reducing humanity’s impacts on the environment.