The measures taken to control the spread of the virus and the slowdown of economic activities have unintentionally yielded positive impacts on the natural environment. The lockdown resulted in a sudden drop in greenhouse gas emissions as industry and transportation closed down.
At the start of 2020, when China instructed its people to stay at home for a short period, emissions fell 25% and the use of coal fell 40% at China’s six largest power plants. According to its Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the proportion of days with “good quality air” was up 11.4% in 337 cities across China. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that this saved 50,000 lives in China. It is disturbing to realise that millions of people die every year because of polluted air, smog and soot which are considered to be slow killers. Meanwhile, satellite images from NASA show nitrogen dioxide emissions in Europe fading away over northern Italy as well as Spain and the UK, with the pictures revealing unprecedented healing of the ozone hole.
It’s not just the air, water quality in rivers and water bodies also improved. The discharge of industrial effluents and other waste ceased with a resultant reduction in toxic levels. India’s holiest river, Ganga, regarded as one of the most polluted rivers in the world, saw a 40–50% improvement in water quality. In Venice, after two months of COVID-19 lockdown, the water was also looking clearer with aquatic life now visible for the first time in many years.
However, the environmental effects on marine ecosystems are not so clear. The global slowdown of commercial fishing, as a result of COVID-19, has reduced pressure on stock levels including some threatened species. The reduction in commercial ships, ferries and cruise liners during the recent pandemic is also believed to have a positive effect on aquatic mammals. One report found that marine mammals such as humpback whales, orcas and sea lions may be having an easier time finding food and navigating because of a reduction in noise.
Negating this impact is the increase in plastic waste including shopping bags, takeaway containers and cups, as well as widespread use of disposable masks and gloves. Instead of biodegrading, plastics break down into smaller and smaller fragments until they become micro-plastics. Those are mistaken for food by marine animals, which can result in malnutrition, starvation or even death.
Overall, the lockdown has provided evidence of a direct relation between pollution levels and economic activities. The World Health Organisation has also highlighted the direct links between the environment and health crises, with preliminary studies identifying correlations between high air pollution and more severe cases of COVID-19. Only an immediate and existential threat like Covid-19 could have led to such a rapid and profound change.
Moving forward, it will be the habits cultivated during lockdown (that are coincidentally good for the climate) that have the potential to bring about the change needed. For example, by reducing unnecessary consumption, such as single use plastic waste (i.e., buying less bottled water); supporting local producers and businesses to help improve supply chain issues and minimise food loss and waste during transportation; switching short trips in the car for bike rides or walks, or, tending to the herb and vegetable planter box that many households started up during the lockdown.
Our response to this health crisis will shape how we deal with the climate crisis in the coming decades.