Over the early months of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has spread like wildfire infecting over 9 million and killing more than 470 000 people globally (as of 23.06.2020). In the attempt to control the virus-spread, over one third of the world’s population has entered some form of lockdown. In most countries this has meant travel restrictions, self-isolation and the closure of all non-essential businesses. This has resulted in a drastic reduction of industrial activities, few vehicles on the roads and an absence of humans in public spaces. The sudden shift in human behaviour has impacted the environment and unintended changes have been observed around the globe – some good and some not so good.
Air Pollution Reductions
Restrictions imposed by our governments following the coronavirus pandemic are temporarily reducing air pollution levels and are improving the air quality around the world. Dramatic decreases in air pollution have been observed across cities and continents where industrial activity has been shut down and where travel restrictions have been imposed to hinder the spread of COVID-19.
Satellite images released by NASA and the European Space Agency show striking reductions in air pollution, specifically nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) emissions. NO₂ is a widespread air pollutant that forms when fossil fuels such as are burned at high temperatures, such as coal, gasoline, diesel, oil and gas. The pollutant is commonly released by vehicles, power plants and other industrial facilities and the measurement of its emissions acts as a good indicator of the global economic activity.
The reduction of NO₂ is especially visible in highly populated areas under lockdown. With factories taking a break and people leaving their cars at home, significant declines in emission levels have been observed across the globe. In several urban locations, the air is the freshest and the skies the bluest it has been in decades. The most significant air pollution drop has been identified in China after the country was put under lockdown in late January. According to Nasa, the NO₂ emission levels across eastern and central China has been reduced by up to 30% due to the country’s lockdown.
Reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The COVID-19 lockdown has not only reduced air pollution levels, but has also reduced the earth’s greenhouse gas emissions. While the reduction of air pollutants have direct effects on human health as it occurs close to the ground, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions affect the earth’s atmosphere as it traps heat from the sun and makes the planet warmer. Carbon dioxide (CO₂) is the primary greenhouse gas emitted from human activities and is the main contributor to climate warming. During the COVID-19 lockdown, CO₂ emissions have drastically decreased in parallel with reduced travel and industrial activity. According to an analysis by Marcus Ferdinand at ICIS, greenhouse gas emissions are expected to drop by over 24 percent in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus lockdown.
Improved Water Quality
While the declines in air pollution following COVID-19 restrictions have been scientifically proven, the pandemic’s impact on waterways has largely remained unclear. However, in recent studies researches suggest a strong connection between air quality and water quality, pointing out that the reduction in air pollution is expected to result in improved water quality. Consistent with this belief, a study conducted on the Vembanad Lake, the longest freshwater lake in India, found that the concentration of pollutants dispersed through the air has decreased around 16% compared to before the pandemic.
In addition to potentially improved water quality, visibly clearer water has been directly linked to pandemic lockdowns – most notoriously in Venice. During Italy’s COVID-19 lockdown, the absence of tourists and boat traffic in Venice has turned Venice’s canals beautifully clear. The normally murky water has cleared up to the point where fish is now visible in the city’s famous waterways. This development is however, not necessarily a result of reduced pollution, rather the water has cleared up because of the reduced boat traffic. With less boat traffic, the sediment lay undisturbed on the bottom of the canals instead of being circulated in the water, resulting in clearer looking water.
Wildlife Entering Cities
As more countries are entering lockdowns and the human population is under isolation to limit the spread of COVID-19, wild animals have been observed exploring the empty streets of some of the world’s most urban areas. Some of the observations include: goats in Wales, monkeys in Thailand, deers in Japan, coyotes in San Francisco, pumas in Chile, boars in Sardinia, orcas in Canada, jaguars in Mexico and raccoons in Panama. With the absence of humans, animals that usually lurk on the edge of big cities and in suburbs are now exploring urban areas for food and perhaps simply out of curiosity.
Reduced Earth Vibrations
Less human activity following COVID-19 lockdowns around the globe have reduced the vibrations of the Earth’s upper crust, referred to as seismic noise. With fewer cars, trains, buses and machines being operated during the pandemic, the Earth is vibrating less than when we were going about our days at normal pace. This phenomenon was first pointed out by seismologists at the Royal Observatory in Belgium, who observed that there was a 30% to 50% reduction in Brussel’s seismic noise levels after the city initiated measures to contain the virus-spread. Similar observations have later been made by seismologists across the globe. With less noise from human activities, seismologists are able to detect and more accurately measure smaller earthquakes that during normal circumstances would not even be registered at seismic stations.
Increased Plastic Waste
Concerns surrounding hygiene and the fear of COVID-19 contamination has resulted in an increase in single-use plastics across the globe. The protective and hygienic qualities of plastic is to many people appealing during the pandemic and disposability has become a selling point. With health concerns being consumers’ top priority, companies are abandoning sustainability policies and are re-embracing single-use plastics. During the outbreak, disposable plastic bags have made a comeback, certain coffee chains have stopped accepting reusable cups and the demand of plastic wrapped foods, plastic water bottles, disposable plastic gloves and other single-use plastic items have increased. Additionally, mountains of single-use plastic in the form of medical waste have been generated during the pandemic. The unfortunate consequence of this development is increases in plastic waste, much of which is hard to recycle, not suitable for recycling or simply not economically worth recycling.
Increase in Antibacterial Chemicals in the Environment
One of the recommendations for avoiding the spread of COVID-19 is to regularly wash our hands with soap and water or with hand sanitisers. As an on-the-go alternative to soap, the sales of hand sanitisers have been skyrocketing around the globe. Hand sanitisers in the form of gels, sprays and wipes have been flying off the shelves during the pandemic and have become products that are hard to get by. While effective against the virus-spread, many of these sanitizing products contain environmentally damaging chemicals, such as triclocarban and triclosan. These have been found to slip through the filtering process in sewage plants, entering natural waterways and to accumulate in the environment. Both chemicals act as endocrine disruptors, disturbing the hormone systems of fish and animals at low concentrations, causing a variety of health and behavioral issues in some species. The antibacterial additives also have the potential to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria, potentially causing long-long-term health implications for both animals and humans. Triclosan has additionally been found to inhibit algae to efficiently perform photosynthesis. With a massive increase in the use of such products on a global scale, it is safe to assume that more triclocarban and triclosan is entering the environment and that we are implicating ecosystems, and in the long-run, potentially ourselves.
The drastic change in human behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly affected our environment. Some of the changes are immensely positive and some cause potential negative short- and long-term effects. While the positive effects of the coronavirus are considered temporary, the changes give us valuable insights into how we could slow down the climate crisis if we made it a priority. Hopefully, the positive effects of the virus will inspire companies and governments to initiate more sustainable practices in order to make permanent environmental changes. We can also draw learnings from the negative impacts of the virus through the development of sustainable solutions for future pandemics.