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How COVID-19 Could Harm the Environment

A face mask with a map of the world printed on it on a white background.

 

Marko Klaric / EyeEm / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Fossil fuel emissions are expected to rise as governments revive economies by bolstering gas and oil companies.
  • Plastic pollution is intensifying due to the disposal of single-use personal protective equipment and the waste from increased home deliveries.
  • With the focus on COVID-19, important executive actions to tackle climate change are being put on hold.

When COVID-19 lockdowns seized the world last winter, it was almost as though nature was given a chance to breathe: Los Angeles emerged from beneath a thick layer of smog, and canals in Venice flowed clear and sediment-free.

Nature's "healing" seemed like it could be a silver lining to the pandemic, but that doesn't appear to be the case.

As restrictions lift and people (and policies) adjust to a "new normal," many experts warn that any positive effects COVID-19 may have had on the environment might be short-lived. In fact, some of our efforts to combat the pandemic—whether rooted in safety measures or economic recuperation—could indirectly cause negative climate consequences.

Global Emissions 

One of the initial events heralded as a sign of climate redemption was the reduction of greenhouse gases in March and April of 2020. As lockdowns went into effect, air travel ceased, car traffic lessened, and factory work paused. Carbon emissions—the leading source of global warming—decreased by 17% compared to the same period in 2019.

As society slowly emerged from lockdowns, carbon emissions also resumed. As of June 2020, greenhouse gas emissions are only 5% lower than they were last year. In total, The International Energy Agency estimates that the emission rate for 2020 will reduce by only 6%.

Several experts, including Will Steffen, professor emeritus at Fenner School of Environment & Society in Australia, have projected an even lower number—around 3 to 4%.

“Carbon dioxide (CO2) rates will be increasing pretty much at the same rates that we've seen over the last decade or two,” Steffen, who served as the inaugural director of the Australian National University Climate Change Institute, tells Verywell. “That doesn’t necessarily mean COVID-19 will actually worsen the climate change issue here with regards to emissions, but it's not going to make much of a difference at all.” 

In an article posted on GatesNotes, Bill Gates says that the reduction would only be significant if it were to occur every year—which is not likely.

"Consider what it’s taking to achieve this reduction. More than 600,000 people have died, and tens of millions are out of work," Gates writes. "This April, car traffic was half what it was in April 2019. For months, air traffic virtually came to a halt. What’s remarkable is not how much emissions will go down because of the pandemic, but how little."

Traffic and Public Transportation

The amount of traffic congestion is already returning to pre-pandemic levels and may even increase as people abandon public transportation and ride-sharing services to avoid potential chances for infection.

Early data illustrates the shift to private car usage. In June, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in New York City—one of the most crowded subway systems in the world—experienced a decline of 74% in riders. Similar dips have been seen in mass transits across the country.

Even though air travel is down due to travel restrictions, Steffen says that air traffic makes up only a minority of transport emissions and that the bulk of travel-related pollution emanates from road emissions.

As more jobs shift away from remote work policies, Steffen fears that cities will be overwhelmed with car traffic, which he says is already happening in several cities in Australia where people are using private cars more than public transport. "I think in terms of transport, there's going to be a mixed outcome here," Steffen says. "I don't know what the overall result will be, but given that automobile travel is a bigger emitter than air travel, I suspect that any change that we make in reduced air travel will be canceled or exceeded by people using cars more and public transportation less.”

Industry-Driven Emissions

There is also concern about future emissions as world leaders try to rehabilitate afflicted economies. For example, the U.S. government has been injecting money into the fossil fuel industry through extraordinary subsidies. Multiple fossil fuel, oil, and gas companies have been granted special privileges and received billions of dollars in funding.

In total, more than half a trillion dollars is intended to be funneled into carbon industries worldwide—even though investing in renewable energy would be cheaper.

While the intention is to generate jobs in drilling, mining, and creating pipelines, achieving this goal could wreak havoc on the environment. Countries like China, whose emission levels are back to where they were pre-pandemic, have recently permitted the development of multiple coal-fired power plants.

“This is a good example of how the COVID crisis is actually making the environment much worse," says Steffen. "Our governments want to pour a lot of taxpayers’ money into supporting a big expansion of the gas industry. Gas industries are a heavy emitter of greenhouse gases, particularly methane, which is very dangerous. In this instance, COVID-19 is going to accelerate climate change.” 

The Link Between Climate Change and Pandemics

Global warming, deforestation, farmland degradation, and diversity loss all push animals out of their natural habitats and into contact with humans. This breeds the potential for zoonotic diseases to transfer from animals to humans. This is what happened with SARS-CoV-2 and bats, which harbor hundreds of coronaviruses.

Diseases that are carried by insects, called vector-borne diseases, also correlate with rising temperatures as they can expand into new territories. 

“When all of these events happen around the world, we are creating an environment where there is closer interaction between humans and all types of wildlife,” William Schaffner, MD, a professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University, tells Verywell. “This means that we come into closer contact with the viruses that affect those populations of animals and that can be carried by insects. The risk of a new virus that can be transmitted from humans increases when climate change happens. It has likely happened in the past, and it will likely happen in the future with introductions of animal viruses and insect-borne viruses into humans."

Increase in Plastic Pollution 

With the rise in usage of disposable personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves, and face shields comes the issue of disposal. Plastic pollution was a problem long before this pandemic, but the increase in medical waste compounds it.

Single-Use Face Masks

Hundreds of masks have already been spotted scattered across beaches and floating in oceans, posing a threat to aquatic animals who mistake them for food. This contributes to biosphere degradation—the degradation of the living part of the planet.

“Scientific work testifies to the ubiquity of single-use plastics and their noxious impact in rivers and oceans," Pamela L. Geller, PhD, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Miami, tells Verywell. "In aquatic zones, single-use plastics exacerbate disease and death for coral, fish, sea birds, and marine mammals. The pandemic has exacerbated all of these problems with plastics."

Pamela L. Geller, PhD

The general public needs to start using reusable and not disposable masks.

— Pamela L. Geller, PhD

Geller concedes that single-use plastics have their place amid the pandemic. "We have seen a dramatic uptick in the use of disinfectant wipes, surgical masks, and gloves. These are designed for disposability and contain plastics. I understand the necessity of these items during the current pandemic."

Geller stresses the importance of disposing of single-use masks in a trash can and encourages people to choose reusable masks if they can. "I often spot these items thrown casually on the ground. I think that the general public needs to start using reusable and not disposable masks.”

How to Dispose of Single-Use Face Masks

If you wear single-use face masks, dispose of them in an indoor trash can. This prevents them from ending up on the street or elsewhere outdoors where they can harm animals. Before you toss them out, cut both ear straps of your mask to make sure animals can't get tangled in them.

Shopping

Altered shopping habits have added to the increase in waste. As more people stay home and order food, clothes, and other items online, safety and convenience come at the cost of more damage to the biosphere. 

“Something like COVID-19, which forces people indoors and an increased reliance on home deliveries, can lead to a tremendous waste of material and a negative effect on the environment,” Joseph Sharit, PhD, a research professor of industrial engineering at the University of Miami, tells Verywell. “For example, before the pandemic, we would go to Whole Foods with reusable bags. At the beginning of the lockdown, we shifted to getting Whole Foods deliveries through Amazon Prime."

Sharit says that while companies took great pains to keep items wrapped and sanitized, that added layer of protection has a different kind of cost.

"At first, I was amazed at how everything was packaged—they carefully placed everything in plastic bubble wrap and individual bags," says Sharit. "But then I realized we were responsible for disposing of all this packaging, and have since abandoned using this delivery service. However, I would not be surprised if many people discovered, due to COVID-19, how convenient such services are and consequently will want to continue using them, even after the pandemic.” 

Joseph Sharit, PhD

Something like COVID-19, which forces people indoors and an increased reliance on home deliveries, can lead to a tremendous waste of material and a negative effect on the environment.

— Joseph Sharit, PhD

Dining Out

The shift to single-use plastics has made its way into public places as well. Sharit highlights that eateries with self-serve policies now supply customers with plastic gloves to use when dispensing food. For example, at Menchies (a popular yogurt chain), the various toppings are distributed to customers in plastic containers of a predetermined size.

Meanwhile, multiple cities in the U.S. have suspended recycling programs to prevent cross-contamination. China is burying its trash, Canada is burning it, and many European countries are enacting policies to ban people from sorting trash. 

Deforestation in the Amazon 

Another ongoing environmental concern that has been worsened by the pandemic is deforestation. According to preliminary satellite data from the National Institute for Space Research in Brazil, 64% more of the Amazon rainforest was cleared in April 2020 compared to April 2019. The increase is the result of illegal logging and mining, which has escaped notice as the spotlight continues to be on the pandemic.

“Coming out of COVID-19, the government will want to accelerate deforestation because it creates more jobs and income," Steffen says. "This is a big example of how governments are coming out of the COVID crisis and how they try to get their economies going again."

Deforestation emits copious amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming. At the same time, deforestation means fewer trees to absorb CO2, leading to lower air quality.

Rebuilding a Greener Future

Necessary green energy initiatives and efforts to reduce our carbon footprint have left the foreground of public policies amid the pandemic. COVID-induced economic collapse could further hinder implementation.

"To save the planet, we would need to reduce emissions by about 6% a year, every single year, which means that we basically need to cut our emissions in half by 2030 and get them to zero by 2040," Steffen says. "That gives us 20 years to completely restructure our economies and the way we live, which is a really big challenge, and it means we have to start now."

While the COVID-19 pandemic could delay the plan, Steffen emphasizes that it also gives us the chance to get it right. As we start to rebuild the economy and our lives, we can look for systemic, carbon-free ways of producing the energy resources we need. "As we recover from COVID-19, we have to do so with the planet in mind as well," he says.

What This Means For You

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and we start looking ahead at our "new normal," there are steps we can take to rebuild a greener future. As society is changing and life after the pandemic takes shape, we need to keep in mind that some of the changes we need to make for our health might affect the health of the planet.

Even something as simple as properly discarding of single-use face masks—or better yet, investing in reusable ones—can make a difference in the short- and long-term.

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Article Sources
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