2020 has been defined by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The virus has brought industry crashing to a halt and transformed the daily life of billions. This significant change in human behavior has also had a direct impact on the planet as a whole. Read on to learn about some of the environmental impacts caused by the pandemic.
In this article:
- Changing energy consumption
- Reducing carbon emissions
- Cleaning up the air
- Increasing waste
- Looking to the future
1. Changing Energy Consumption
With COVID-19 significantly changing the way we work and travel, there has been a considerable shift in global energy consumption. The movement restrictions in place in much of the world have seen public transportation use almost disappear. According to mobility app Moovit, in New York, subway ridership is -75% since the virus outbreak, and European capitals, Madrid and Rome, saw usage down by over 90% at the peak of the pandemic. The aviation industry has also seen a dramatic decrease. Data collected by OAG shows that in the first week of April, airports in countries such as Spain, Germany, and Hong Kong, experienced declines of more than 90% in their flight numbers.
In terms of energy consumption, the seismic decrease in travel has seen demand for petrol or aviation fuels plummeting. For instance, in the US it has been reported that American drivers have reduced their gasoline level use to that of 25 years ago.
The temporary closure of businesses and schools has also changed energy demand. In the UK, home energy use is actually up 30% in the middle of the day, however, overall, less energy is being used. According to The Conversion, Britain's electrical demand is temporarily predicted to decrease back to levels not seen since the 1960s.
The pandemic is also impacting where we get our energy from. According to The New York Times, the renewable-energy business is expected to grow, unlike fossil fuel companies that have been significantly impacted by low oil and gas prices.
2. Reducing Carbon Emissions
With less demand for transportation, there has been a significant decrease in associated emissions. The Financial Times reports that aircraft emissions fell by almost a third in March, and also found that 28 million fewer tonnes of carbon dioxide were emitted in the month. As already mentioned, the focus on working from home has reduced electrical demand, again contributing to a lower-carbon generation.
In China, the closure of factories at the peak of the pandemic saw emissions significantly reduce. According to the BBC, the country's six largest power plants reduced coal consumption by 40%, and overall, emissions in China fell by 25%. However, China is beginning to restart its economy, and recent emission figures show a decline of 18%.
3. Cleaning up the Air
With the mass closures of factories, and transportation virtually frozen, global air quality has been improving. In Beijing, during the height of the restrictions, the infamous smog lifted and the city experienced unusually clear skies. The same effect has been found in the Himalayas, where CNN reported that the mountain range could be seen over 100 miles away due to decreased air pollution.
However, the improvement in air quality is more than just visible. Air pollution, which refers to pollutants within the air itself is detrimental to the planet as a whole, and that of human health. Consequently, The New York Times reports that patients suffering from the coronavirus are more likely to die if they lived in areas that had high levels of air pollution before the pandemic began.
Data collected by The European Environmental Agency shows that toxic nitrogen oxide (NO2) levels are down throughout Europe. In Barcelona, the first week of the city lockdown, saw a 55% reduction in NO2 levels compared to the same week in 2019. In London, the last four weeks of lockdown have seen NO2 falling by 27% across the city and by nearly half on the busiest roads. Similar findings have emerged in other parts of the world, including a significant decrease in NO2 in US cities. However, Time Magazine warns that as normality returns to everyday life, air pollution levels may come back with a “vengeance”.
4. Increasing Waste
As we’ve seen, largely the environmental impact of coronavirus has been positive. However, the many attempts required to contain or treat the virus have resulted in increased medical waste. In Wuhan, China, the peak of the pandemic saw waste 6 times higher per day than it had been pre-outbreak, and to process this a new medical waste plant was constructed. In Hong Kong, Reuters reports that discarded single-use face masks have been cluttering beaches and nature trails around the city.
The higher volumes of waste caused by the pandemic are not only medical. Changing consumer behavior has too seen waste skyrocketing. One reason is the inclination to over-purchase or “panic buy”, which in the US has resulted in toilet paper sales up 112% compared to March 2019, and aerosol disinfectants up 343%.
Additionally, the closure of restaurants and brick and mortar stores have forced consumers to turn to online ordering. Since the beginning of the pandemic, e-commerce retailers have reported huge spikes in online orders of certain products. This increase in personal deliveries has caused more packaging to be produced which then needs to be disposed of. According to The Guardian, in the UK the coronavirus lockdown has seen some areas experience an increased 20% - 50% on normal waste volumes collected through household bins.
5. Looking to the Future
With some nations starting to recover from the coronavirus, the focus begins to move to the future. Milan has already announced plans to introduce one of Europe’s most ambitious schemes, where the city will reallocate street space from cars to cycling and walking. Paris too, has committed 650 kilometers of cycleways for when the lockdown is eased in France. Of course, post-crisis, questions will arise as to the pandemic's longterm impact on consumer behavior. For instance, will consumers be seduced by the convenience of online deliveries, regardless of the additional waste produced?
The current crisis has highlighted just how fragile society is, and as life returns to normal, focus will need to be given to how emissions and pollution can continue to be reduced, without such a high toll on society. It is estimated that greenhouse gas emissions are predicted to fall to around 6% in 2020. In the context of climate change, the UN estimates that emissions will have to fall 7.6% a year over the coming decade to limit temperatures to 1.5C above pre-industrial times.
Of course, nobody would have wanted a positive impact on the environment to come at such a cost to human health. Perhaps, however, some of the learnings about working together in the face of crisis, and a rethinking of some aspects of our daily lives can help us to tackle the environmental problems of the future.