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COVID-19 and the Environment: What Changed and How we Can Carry it Forward

Wil Robertson's picture
Public Policy Thinker Independent Consultant

An analytical thinker, with a passion for promoting the sharing of our truths. Proud to further the causes of social acceptance, sustainability, and justice. 

  • Member since 2021
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  • Jul 12, 2021 4:04 pm GMT
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The COVID-19 pandemic has affected millions of people worldwide and killed hundreds of thousands. This is truly a tragedy that will have knock-on effects for years to come. These will be mainly in public health of course, but also other sectors and aspects of life. One of these aspects you may have seen during the pandemic online is Coronavirus’s effect on the environment. The main question is whether these environmental changes will carry forward, or just be a blip on the global-warming radar.

            As COVID-19 worsened and continues to in some areas of the world, government-imposed lockdowns took hold. Businesses closed, curfews imposed, social restrictions enacted, and the world came to a grinding halt. At the time of writing (August 11, 2020), places like Australia, China, Spain, and sections of the US remain under lockdown and strict guidelines. Much of the world is operating under strict public health guidelines. While the pandemic rages on, a consequential effect of lockdowns has been a reduction in pollution across the globe. Compared with this time last year, levels of pollution in New York have reduced by nearly 50% because of measures to contain the virus. In China, emissions fell 25% at the start of the year as people were instructed to stay at home, factories shuttered, and coal use fell by 40% at China’s six largest power plants since the last quarter of 2019. Transportation makes up 23% of global carbon emissions. These emissions have fallen in the short term in countries where public health measures, such as keeping people in their homes, have cut unnecessary travel. Driving and aviation are key contributors to emissions from transport, contributing 72% and 11% of the transport sector’s greenhouse gas emissions respectively. (https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200326-covid-19-the-impact-of-coronavirus-on-the-environment)

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            Nitrogen dioxide is one of the best measures for a day-to-day comparison of the environmental impacts of the COVID lockdowns because it tends to dissipate much faster than carbon monoxide. Its presence is a better indicator of changes in a short period. It is also commonly produced from the burning of fossil fuels. In cities like Toronto and Montreal, the nitrogen dioxide levels fell more than 30 percent, mainly because there were fewer cars on the roads, and factories either closed or cut production. In Edmonton and Calgary, the drop was closer to 40 percent.

Regions of the United States have also seen significant reductions in levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

Tropospheric nitrogen dioxide column, March 15-April 15 2015-2019 Average vs March 15-April 15, 2020 Average, Southeast USA.

Credits: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/4810

These maps show NO2 values across China from January 1–20, 2020 (before the quarantine), and February 10–25 (during the quarantine). Data collected by the Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) on ESA’s Sentinel-5 satellite. Image adapted from: NASA Earth Observatory 2020; CC0 (https://www.science.org.au/curious/earth-environment/what-impact-will-covid-19-have-environment)

In April, international air quality technology company IQAir found significant drops in 10 world cities of fine particles, known as PM2.5 (meaning particulate matter less than 2.5 microns across, a small fraction of the width of a hair). The study showed PM2.5 down 60 percent in Delhi, compared to the same three-week period in 2019, and drops of 54 percent in Seoul, 31 percent in Los Angeles, and 25 percent in New York City. (https://globalnews.ca/news/6968741/coronavirus-pollution-environment-canada/)

This map shows the percent reduction in PM2.5 levels when comparing the 2020 shutdown period to the same period in 2019. Image adapted from IQ Air 2020 (https://www.science.org.au/curious/earth-environment/what-impact-will-covid-19-have-environment)

Miriam Diamond, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Toronto, said even a temporary drop in air pollution can have a positive impact on human health. Nitrogen dioxide and PM2.5 can inflame air passages and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks, and strokes.

Health Canada estimated last year that more than 14,000 Canadians die each year because of exposure to air pollution. (https://globalnews.ca/news/6968741/coronavirus-pollution-environment-canada/)

            There has been a clear reduction in emissions worldwide due to the restrictions in place for COVID-19. This can be seen particularly when analyzing levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter emitted in urban areas. The lower emissions levels we’re experiencing right now have positive effects on our health and our environment. These effects are both statistically and visually tangible. Skies are clearer, wildlife has returned to habitats they had long since abandoned, the water looks like water again in bigger cities, and people can breathe outside in urban centers long adjusted to smog warnings. These are the effects of lowered emissions. While the jury is still out on how COVID-19’s consequential reduction in emissions will have on global warming in the long-term, we have been shown what is possible when the world lowers its emissions. We can see what positive environmental change looks like. We need to carry it forward.

            With adjustments in our daily lives and legislation, we can meet the targets of the Paris Climate Accord. We can lower emissions, benefiting our health, wildlife, and finances. The European Union has already made renewable energy a cornerstone of its COVID-19 economic recovery plans. Different elements of the United Nations have recommended the same focus on renewable energy and environmental consciousness even before this pandemic. Renewable energy is growing rapidly, science is developing new climate solutions, and many people are making personal adjustments to help the environment. This is not enough. We have seen what a moment of drastic environmental change looks like due to the shutdowns caused by the Coronavirus. The reality of the matter is that we must continue to make even more drastic changes to reduce global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. More is required of the human family to ensure its posterity. This moment in history has shown us that significant change is possible and will help our world heal from the climate crisis. Wind farms, solar panels, retrofits, energy efficiency projects, electric vehicles, better walking trails and public transport, encouragement of recycling and composting, accessing available public funds for clean energy opportunities, being more conscious of electronic waste, and advocating for further government action on the environment; these represent only a portion of the opportunities we have right now to accelerate positive environmental change. COVID-19 has given us a clear case study of what significant changes in emissions cause: better public health and a cleaner environment. So, will we forget about it once we cure this virus? Or will we take action to save our planet with affordable steps that are available to us now? It's our choice, and we can choose to accelerate positive environmental change today. 

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 12, 2021

There was a lot of buzz early on in the pandemic of 'look what difference can be made so quickly'-- reminded me of the PSAs you see about how much a smoker's lung can improve in a short period of time after quitting. Those images are powerful, and I wonder if that time period in COVID can be harnessed in a way to motivate people to truly act-- in a way to fight the environmental doom-ism many often feel? 

Wil Robertson's picture
Wil Robertson on Jul 12, 2021

Exactly Matt, and I wrote this thinking of the kinds of posts and images you mentioned. Its truly astonishing. I'll be interested to see in-depth studies of that timeframe so we can better harness the lessons from the change that was forced by COVID. 

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