Impact of COVID-19 on the Environment
Updated: Mar 2, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has spread to more than 200 countries, affecting over 37 million people worldwide. Although the virus’s toll on human health has been at the forefront of media attention, the indirect impact of COVID-19 on the environment has not been fully analyzed.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, emissions of carbon dioxide were rising by about 1% per year over the past decade. In fact, according to a 2016 World Health Organization Report, 91% of the global population lives in areas with the worst air quality conditions. However, in early April, due to widespread shutdowns, daily global carbon emissions were down by 17% compared to last year, which corresponds to the level of emissions in 2006. Because of social distancing, less public transport [such as buses, trains, or planes] are used, reducing emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.
Beach pollution is defined as any harmful substance that contaminates our coasts, ranging from plastic and trash to sewage and pesticides. More than 100,000 seabirds, sea turtles, seals, and other marine animals die each year after getting entangled in plastic or ingesting it. However, after a national state of emergency was called due to the pandemic, many beaches closed down to abide by social distancing policies. The lack of tourists has caused a notable change in the appearance of many beaches around the world. For example, beaches in Acapulco, Mexico, and Barcelona, Spain, now have crystal clear waters and cleaner beaches (ScienceDirect).
The above photo shows a general view of a beach in Barcelona, overcrowded on August 21, 2017 (L) and empty on May 13, 2020 (R), during the national lockdown to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 disease. [Photos by Josep LAGO / AFP]
Reduction of Environmental Noise Levels
Environmental noise is an accumulation of unwanted sound which can be caused by transportation, industrial processes, and recreational activities. Man-made sounds can mask animal sounds or audition; this can affect animal communication, use of space, or reproduction and affects many biological groups such as birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, mammals, and invertebrates. (Environmental Evidence Journal). The quarantine measures enacted by most governments have caused people to stay home, leading to a significant decrease in the use of public, private, and commercial transportation. All of these changes have caused the noise level to drop in most cities.
China, being the first country to reopen once the virus hit, offers a preview of what could take place globally once more industries are allowed to operate at maximum capacity. The substantial improvements in air quality due to limited manufacturing and transportation vanished in March (Natural Geographic). To make up for the lost time, factories double their efforts to improve the economy. This has led to rising pollution levels and increasing numbers of coal-plants drastically increasing air pollution and contributing to global warming.
In Brazil, due to lack of enforcement, illegal loggers have accelerated their destruction of the Amazon rainforest. National Geographic comments, “According to satellite data from the space research agency INPE, 64% more land was cleared in April 2020 than in the same month last year—even though 2019 was the biggest year for deforestation in more than a decade.” With a pandemic raging and Brazil becoming a COVID-19 hotspot, illegal loggers, ranchers, and miners have faced little hindrance from law enforcement as they continue their deforestation efforts.
Furthermore, cleared vegetation can be set alight due to drying conditions after July, and the thick smoke produced can cause heart and lung problems for many people. The smoke can aggravate COVID-19 patients’ symptoms and increase pressure on already-struggling hospital systems.
The COVID-19 pandemic produced both positive and negative effects on the environment. The positive indirect effects are the improvement in beach cleanliness, reduction of environmental noise, and the reduction of PM 2.5 and NO2 concentrations globally, leading to decreased air pollution. On the other hand, countries might choose to bolster their economies through increased production in factories and lax enforcement of environmental protection laws.