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  • Nicole Vuong

COVID-19's Environmental Impact


Courtesy of GTM


Introduction:

Coronavirus has undoubtedly impacted our lives in major ways. If you’re anything like me, you’ve just been sitting in your chair all day and staring at your computer screen, now the only window to the outside world. You likely haven’t been driving your car or traveling as much either. Since this is an environmental website and you’re here, you might now be asking: Is our quarantine good for the planet? We’re using less fossil fuels, so we’re emitting less carbon dioxide now, right? I initially had these thoughts too - but like so many other environmental issues, it isn’t that simple.


How COVID-19 Is Impacting The Environment - The Good AND The Bad

1. Air Pollution

  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a pollutant produced from human activities such as combusting fossil fuels. Fortunately, there is some good news about this environmental enemy: current NO2 levels are significantly lower than those in 2019. For Rome in particular, the decrease was especially large: 26 to 35% [1]!

  • Another common pollutant, broadly termed “fine particles” (PM2.5), has decreased drastically - up to 54% in Seoul and 44% in Wuhan (1). Nine major global cities saw PM2.5 reductions ranging from 25-60% [1].


NASA

According to WHO, air pollution increases the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, causing 4.2 million premature deaths in the process [1]. So, decreasing air pollution is undoubtedly a positive step promoting better human health!


2. CO2 emissions

  • During the first 6 months of 2020, emissions dropped by 8.8% compared to the first half of 2019 [2]! The greatest drops were in April when the first wave of coronavirus was at its peak [2].

However, this doesn’t mean we’ll continue to decrease our CO2 emissions. Researchers noted that ever since economies began reopening in July 2020, industries tended to resume their pre-corona levels of CO2 emissions, with the transportation sector being the main exception [2].


The temporary decrease in CO2 emissions, while significant, is likely not going to have much impact on overall CO2 atmospheric levels in the long run. More sustained changes to our lifestyle and economy, rather than temporary decreases in our activity, will be key to controlling CO2 levels in our atmosphere.


Decreasing CO2 atmospheric levels takes more than just decreasing our CO2 emissions; our planet must be able to absorb CO2 effectively as well. From 2000 to 2008, ocean and land ecosystems absorbed approximately 55% of CO2 emitted from human activity [1]. Unfortunately, with climate change eating away at numerous ecosystems, the world’s ability to absorb CO2 will become increasingly compromised.



3. Investments in Clean Energy Solutions

It’s no secret: scientists are looking towards more sustainable substitutions to fossil fuels, whether it be solar panels or windmills or hybrid cars. However, due to financial challenges, lockdown mandates, and supply chain disruptions resulting from COVID-19, there have been numerous challenges to the implementation of clean energy alternatives [3]. To be exact, the world is projected to add 13% less renewable power capacity compared to 2019 [3].


Heavy industries in particular require extensive time and budgets to significantly improve their energy usage patterns. As of now, investments in low-emission technologies are not as prioritized, so there’s a danger of such industries continuing to use technology that emit high CO2 and pollutant levels for a long time.


Furthermore, the demand for maritime fuel has decreased over the course of this pandemic, thus also plummeting fuel prices. These lower prices discourage the maritime industry from investing more into pricey, cleaner energy [3].


4. Animals

  • Disinfecting sprays have proven to be a hazard to numerous animals. In Chongqing, China, the unregulated spraying of disinfectants has killed 135 animals from 17 different species within the first month of 2020 [4].

  • Toxins tend to travel up food webs. In other words, if a prey is exposed to toxins, predators that eat such prey will accumulate those toxins in their own bodies and continue to pass it up the food chain. Although there isn’t research currently available about disinfectant toxins accumulating up the food web, ecology professor Christopher J. Schell claims this is likely happening at the moment [4].



What Can I Do To Help?

It’s certainly more difficult to organize beach clean-ups and anything else requiring in-person contact during these times. Fortunately, there are still simple ways you can continue to protect the environment remotely!

  1. Take shorter showers: Now that winter is approaching and we’re still stuck at home, it’s tempting to just blast that hot water and treat yourself to a DIY sauna/spa day. Not so fast, though! Cutting your shower time by just 5 minutes will save you 25 gallons of water per shower session on average [5]! Don’t forget: you’re not only saving water (a valuable resource in its own right), but also the energy it takes to heat up that water.

  2. Cut the beef… even a bit: It’s hard to give up beefy burgers forever, but turning away from them occasionally is a small act with big impact (if everyone joins in, too!). If every person gave up a burger’s worth of beef per week, that’d be equivalent to “taking 10 million cars off the road each year” [6].

  3. Watch how you shop: There are so many ways to turn grocery shopping into an environmentally friendly activity. For more details on this, you can check out Carol’s earlier article “4 Ways Your Next Grocery Haul Can Be More Environmentally Friendly”!


Coronavirus has limited what we can do in many ways, but it doesn’t stop us from continuing to be environmentally conscious people. Continue to support eco-friendly legislation, continue to do little (or big!) things to help the environment, and of course, continue to stay in touch with our website for future articles! Thank you again for stopping by :).



References:

[1] ScienceDaily. (2020, October 14). Biggest carbon dioxide drop: Real-time data show COVID-19's massive impact on global emissions. ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/10/201014082806.htm.

[2] Larissa. (2020, July 15). What impact will COVID-19 have on the environment? Curious. https://www.science.org.au/curious/earth-

environment/what-impact-will-covid-19-have-environment.

[3] Turk, D., & Kamiya, G. (2020, June 11). The impact of the Covid-19 crisis on clean energy progress – Analysis. IEA. https://www.iea.org/articles/the-impact-of-the-covid-19-crisis-on-clean-

energy-progress.

[4] Roth, A. (2020, September 11). Wildlife deaths from coronavirus disinfectant use alarm scientists. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/08/disinfectant-public-cities-pandemic-urban-wildlife-cvd.

[5] Get out of the shower. terrapass. (2009, February 18). https://

www.terrapass.com/get-out-of-the-shower.

[6] Smith, S. (2020, August 12). Why Cutting Back on Beef Is Good for You and the Planet. Prevention. https://www.prevention.com/food-nutrition/

a33565385/beef-negative-impact-on-environment-health.

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