There is no doubt that COVID-19 has affected every aspect of our world. The pandemic has led to a dramatic loss of human life worldwide, an unprecedented challenge to public health, food systems and the world of work as well as major social and economic disruption. However, one may argue that the pandemic has caused the environment to become neglected. Although the pandemic has provoked some negative environmental impacts on our world, it has also brought great environmental change and a nationwide lockdown has acted as a ‘wake up’ call for many of us.
COVID-19 was first identified amid an outbreak of respiratory illness cases in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China. It was initially reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 31, 2019. Most notably, the coronavirus pandemic has had a drastic direct impact on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. researchers estimate a drop in CO2 emissions in Europe of 11% for 2020. The EU has experienced similar changes in coal use as the US over the past decade, the researchers note. Emissions from oil, gas and cement are also estimated to drop by 12%, 3% and 5%, respectively, this year. A 13% drop in emissions is predicted in the UK this year as a result of the extensive lockdown measures introduced in March, plus the second wave of the pandemic. A 13% drop in emissions leaves the UK with the second-highest decrease, behind France with 15%. Extensive lockdown measures resulted in a lack of travel, with cars, buses, trains and planes gas emissions to decrease massively. To put this into perspective, the average petrol car on the road in the UK produces the equivalent of 180g of CO2 every kilometre. Taking into account those who drive to and from work every day alone, you can start to imagine how much carbon dioxide we produce every day.
However, the pandemic has not just presented itself with positive effects, unfortunately, this pandemic has presented itself with a plethora of disadvantages. Coronavirus waste has become a new form of pollution as single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) floods our ocean. Waterlogged masks, gloves, hand sanitiser bottles and other coronavirus waste are already being found on our seabeds and washed up on our beaches, joining the day-to-day detritus in our ocean ecosystems. Already, some 8 million tonnes of plastics enter our ocean every year, adding to the estimated 150 million tonnes already circulating in marine environments. One study estimates that in the UK alone if every person used a single-use face mask a day for a year, it would create an additional 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging. This clearly demonstrates how big this existing problem is, and how this pandemic has contributed to the already massive problem of plastic pollution in our marine life. Unfortunately, in addition to this, The dramatic drop in greenhouse gases and air pollutants seen during the global lockdown will have little impact on our warming planet say scientists. Their new analysis suggests that by 2030, global temperatures will only be 0.01C lower than expected.
The pandemic has caused a temporary crash in carbon emissions, as lockdowns have meant fewer people travelling and less industrial activity, there are concerns the pandemic will divert governments’ attention away from green issues. The UN’s COP26 climate change conference, set to be held in November 2020, has been postponed. This brings up the question of whether our environment and its issues have been neglected due to COVID-19. At a first glance, it would seem completely plausible that the government is concentrating on the economic and health effects of COVID-19, however, environmental factors have been proven to directly impact public health. In an interview with the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd has given us an insight into environmental protection and enforcement, and how COVID-19 must not be used as an excuse to weaken environmental protection. The UN expert said that “a number of governments announced that they are lowering environmental standards, suspending environmental monitoring requirements, reducing environmental enforcement, and restricting public participation. This can result in accelerated deterioration of the environment and have negative impacts on a wide range of human rights including the rights to life, health, water, culture, and food, as well as the right to live in a healthy environment.” The expert went on to say: “The science is clear. People living in areas that have experienced higher levels of air pollution face an increased risk of premature death from COVID-19. Similarly, access to clean water is essential in preventing people from contracting and spreading the virus,” Boyd said. “The global pandemic highlights the vital importance of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.” In addition to this, from a global perspective, in March 2020, The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suspended its enforcement of some environmental laws during the coronavirus outbreak. In an extraordinary move that has stunned former EPA officials, the Trump administration said it will not expect compliance with the routine monitoring and reporting of pollution and won’t pursue penalties for breaking these rules. This clearly shows that the environment has not been seen as a real issue throughout this pandemic, with an allowance to break standard practice to guarantee safe environmental protocol, with no end date for this dropping of enforcement.
Although environmental issues have been neglected as a result of the pandemic by governments worldwide, for individuals, this pandemic has acted as a ‘wake up call’ for us to take action to protect our environment. If anything, the pandemic has highlighted the ongoing issue of climate change, and that by starting to cut down on our carbon emissions as individuals, we can start to reverse the awful effects that climate change has posed to us. We can still restore our connection with nature and take responsibility as stewards of the vast natural resources of our world. We can come out of this COVID-19 crisis stronger and ensure a better and healthier planet for future generations. This year, nature has given us a clear wake-up call. We must act on biodiversity and the climate crisis now. This is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of future pandemics and to enhance the resilience of human beings.
Furthermore, They might sound unrelated, but the COVID-19 crisis and the climate and biodiversity crises are deeply connected. The vast majority (three out of every four) of new infectious diseases in people come from animals, from wildlife and from the livestock we keep in ever-larger numbers. To demonstrate even further how interlinked biodiversity and the pandemic are, human activities continue to disturb ecosystems worldwide, we are likely to see more infectious diseases crossing from wildlife to humans. Because of the loss of natural habitats, wildlife species are forced to migrate to human-dominated landscapes. Many species adapt themselves to manage in such landscapes and consequently can infect humans and/or their livestock with the pathogens they are carrying into these more simplified ecosystems. Pathogens tend to be “diluted” in complex, undisturbed, ecosystems. This dilution effect can operate to decrease encounter rates among competent hosts or regulate host abundance. As the dilution effect decreases, there is an increasing risk of virus spread. To understand and effectively respond to COVID-19, and other novel infectious diseases we’ll likely encounter in the future, policymakers need to acknowledge and respond with “planetary consciousness”. This means taking a holistic view of public health that includes the health of the natural environment. This research goes to show how even something like the environment and a pandemic at a first glance may seem completely unrelated, can actually directly impact one another. If we are to constrain the emergence of new infections and future pandemics, we simply must cease our exploitation and degradation of the natural world, and urgently cut our carbon emissions.
Above all, if we can take away anything from this pandemic, it is that it is not too late for us to reverse the damage we have already done to our environment and our planet. Multiple nationwide lockdowns have given us the opportunity to consider our environmental impact and question how we can reduce our footprint as well as protect our biodiversity. Lockdown has given us a glimpse into how if as a community we come together, we can make a difference to our ongoing climate problem.
By Rosie Hellawell