COVID-19 Global Impact: How It Is Affecting the Environment Globally

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a disruption in global trade, flights are being canceled, and many people are now working or staying at home. Life, as we know it, has changed.

However, with the slowing down of manufacturing, travel, and the humdrum of day-to-day operations, the pandemic is also causing some interesting positive effects on the environment. Here are some great examples of how COVID-19 is affecting the environment globally.

  1. Clearing the Air

    In recent years, scientists warned that emissions must start dropping by 2020 to circumvent the worst impacts of climate change. They probably did not think that a global pandemic would help get that objective on its way – yet it has been widely reported that COVID-19 may trigger the biggest ever annual fall in carbon dioxide emissions. Experts predict that there could be CO2 reductions of about 5.5% in 2020 compared to 2019[1] – larger than those seen during any previous way or economic crisis.

    NASA’s satellite images[2] reveal a significant decline in pollution levels in Wuhan, China – the birthplace of the virus – Beijing and Shanghai, due to decreased economic activity. Although it is happening for all the wrong reasons, it is a small piece of good news. Furthermore, if sustained, this may put us back on track for reversing the damage to the planet. Compared to the same period of time last year, we can also see the drop in emissions across the rest of the world from January to March 2020.

    One of the major contributors to carbon emissions is air travel. According to FlightRadar24, a website that tracks and monitors global air traffic in real time, the average number of daily flights has more than halved in the previous months[3]. In fact, as COVID-19 spread around the world and airlines reacted by stopping flying and governments implementing travel restrictions, commercial air traffic has shrunk 41% below 2019 levels in the last two weeks of March.

    Aside from the climate and environmental benefits of reducing emissions, it has health benefits too. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution kills about 7 million people worldwide each year[4], and 9 out of 10 people breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants. Data from the Centre for International Climate Research (CICERO) reveals that, in February, there was a 20-30% decrease in pollution. If those levels continue in the long-term, we could save about 50,000 to 100,000 lives prematurely affected by air pollution[5].
  2. Clearing the Water
    Industry shutdowns and decreased foot traffic has led to less pollutants in waterways.

    After months of lockdown, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment reported that there was a significant decrease in chemicals like ammonia and phosphorus[6] in the country’s surface water, likely due to factory and industry closures.

    This is also evident in Venice, Italy where the waters in Venice’s canals have become cleaner than they have been in living memory. With a decrease in its number of tourists due to the pandemic and with things like motorboats effectively grounded, sediment-churning and other water pollutants have significantly dropped. In most areas of Venice, residents have been astonished by how clear the water has become.
  3. Clear Roads and Land
    With people under lockdown, there are much fewer vehicles on the road. Now, even cities with some of the worst traffic in the world, from Los Angeles to Manila, are like ghost towns with nearly empty roads. Less waiting in traffic jams and less carbon monoxide from car exhaust has led to better air quality for all.

    Another unexpected benefit of clear roads and land are that animals are once again free to roam around their urbanized habitats. Rapid urbanization has pushed wildlife to survive in disjointed pieces of land. With humans mostly trapped indoors, animals have less threat of being disturbed. Some animals are even starting to venture out, feeling more at ease to explore urbanized areas – for instance, in France, there have been more birds in cities. Also, since there are fewer cars on the road, there will also be less roadkill.
  4. Domestic Energy Use Rising, Commercial Use Falling – Further Reducing Emissions
    Around the world, more and more people are put under lock-down and are asked to work from home. This has resulted in energy consumption profiles in buildings to be disrupted. With many people now working and staying at home, domestic energy consumption has risen sharply.

    It has been predicted[7] that this has risen by about 6-8% in the United States alone. Conversely, with fewer people in educational or commercial buildings, their energy consumption should decrease by as much as 25-30%.

    Ultimately, this will save energy as the increase in domestic use is more than compensated by the large drop in educational and commercial building uses. Moreover, as demand falls, it has the knock-on effect of reducing the consumption of polluting fuels in power stations.
  5. Emissions from Coal Combustion are Decreasing
    As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, another impact on the environment is the significant drop in coal consumption. This has contributed, in no small part, to the decrease of air pollutants in places like China.

    Not only is this improving air quality in the affected regions, but it is also reducing the number of airborne pollutants such as nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide.

    Presently, China is one of the biggest producers and consumers of coal. In 2018, it is estimated that they consumed about 59% of it for their energy requirements. It helps run much of its industry and is also used as a domestic fuel source for countless citizens.

    However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s major coal-fired power stations saw a 36% decrease in consumption between February and March this year[8].
  6. Remote Connections, Resulting in Greenhouse Gas Emissions
    During the lockdown, more and more people are trying to find other ways to connect. In fact, according to Priori Data, Houseparty (a video chat app) went from 3,955 downloads on March 16 to 81,858 in just one week! But, what about telephones? Verizon, the American telecoms group, is now handling an average of 800 million wireless calls a day during the week – more than double the number made on the busiest call day of the year.

    Furthermore, according to AT&T, U.S. citizens are making 35% more calls than before the pandemic and are also talking for longer – an average of 33% longer – while WiFi calls had nearly doubled from averages in normal times.

    The environmental benefits of fewer people traveling to work are clear; however, businesses also stand to financially benefit as well. Research reveals that big businesses in Wales and England waste £10 billion each year[9] on under-used office space and that 30to50% of that real estate could be freed up by flexible working.

    In the United States, another study reveals that 62% of employees who are not already working remotely believe that they could work away from the office at least one day each week[10].

    According to the Global Carbon Project, working from home – for even a day or two each week – can significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions, clean the air in cities, and save lives as a result.

The Bottom Line

Despite the health and economic damage that COVID-19 has caused around the world, some of the collateral benefits – such as the benefits to the environment – are undeniable.

More people working from home, fewer cars on the road, and fewer flights have clearly benefitted the planet, at least in the short-term – whether we will be able to learn from these changes in the long-term remains to be seen.

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