The environmental impact of Covid-19

Scarlett Welch delves into the positive and negative impacts of Covid-19 on the environment, and whether these are likely to affect us for years to come

Scarlett Welch
11th November 2020

The effects of Covid-19 on our lives are drastic and likely long-lasting. However, the virus and subsequent lockdown have produced a multitude of complex impacts on the environment, which must be considered in addition to the more obvious social factors.

Nowadays, it seems that positive articles about the environment are few and far-between; however, Covid-19, or, more specifically, the lockdown that became a reality as a result, actually had some beneficial effects on the planet. Let’s take CO2 emissions as an example. In China, it is estimated that lockdown measures led to a 25% reduction in emissions, with the following lockdowns around the world having similar impacts. This is due to a number of reasons, such as a 97% decrease in air travel and huge reductions in the number of vehicles on the road; however, the drop in industrial production is probably the biggest factor. 

As we redefine what we deem ‘essential’ products, it is possible that there will be also be a long-term reduction in the production of unnecessary goods. However, it is yet to early to say whether this will be the case. 

nitrous oxide levels have dropped by 10-20%

Other types of air pollution have also seen significant decreases since March. In London, tiny particle pollution has decreased by almost half and in Manchester by a quarter, with similar levels in many other UK cities. Across the whole of Britain, nitrous oxide levels have dropped by 10-20%, higher in certain cities such as London and Birmingham, due to decreased travel; this has the potential to remain lower than usual in the future as people see the benefits of working from home long-term. 

Residents of Punjab, Northern India, say they are able to see the Himalayan Mountain range for the first time in their lifetime as smog has cleared. According to scientists, the ozone layer has seen an accelerated rate of healing - tangible proof that air pollution has decreased globally. 

The Himalayan mountain range visible from over 100 miles away in Punjab, due to the reduction in air pollution caused by the country's lockdown
Image: CNN

Water pollution has also fallen dramatically across the planet. This is largely due to a reduction in industrial waste, but there have also been changes on an individual level. The canals of Venice are reportedly much clearer as pollution has dropped due to reduced motorboat taxis and an almost complete loss of the formerly huge volumes of tourists using the canals. Beaches have also been much less populated, leading to reduced litter ending up in the ocean. 

Boats moored on the canals of Venice, where residents reported clearer water than ever before
Image: Ricardo Gomez on Unsplash

Littering in general has decreased, as people spend less time outdoors, particularly for leisure reasons, meaning much less food and drink packaging is deposited in nature. This will have a positive effect on wildlife, as litter can cause significant harm to animals. 

It is difficult to say whether litter levels will increase again after the pandemic. Sadly, unless people’s attitudes change it is likely that they will as people return to normal life.

Unfortunately, the environmental effects of lockdown have not all been positive. 

Single-use plastic is being discarded at a significantly higher rate

Coronavirus has caused a surge in plastic pollution like never before. Single-use plastic is being discarded at a significantly higher rate as people run through disposable face masks, gloves and bottles of disinfectant and hand sanitiser. Bangladesh alone generated around 14,500 tonnes of PPE and other plastic waste just in March this year.

Coronavirus has caused a surge in plastic pollution, particularly PPE such as facemarks
Image: Michael Jin on Unsplash

For hygiene reasons, many businesses such as coffee shops have banned the use of reusable cups and other containers, despite 119 experts concluding in July that reusable cups caused no risk provided they are washed properly. In the UK alone, 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away each year; this will see a significant increase under lockdown.

Lockdown has also resulted in a doubling of takeaways being consumed in Britain alone as restaurants faced months of closure, which usually come in non-recyclable, plastic packaging. 

It is hard to say whether the environmental impacts of Covid-19 will last. Clearly, the quantity of plastic in our environment will have a long term effect, as plastic can take up to a thousand years to decompose. As for the other environmental factors, that all depends on how keen we are to rush back to the way we lived before the pandemic. Lockdown has had a largely positive impact on the environment, but this will only last if individuals, and more importantly governments and companies, make it last.

Featured image: The Week UK

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