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COVID-19’s Effect on the Environment

George Sagris

The world is experiencing a pandemic caused by COVID-19. One cannot escape hearing news of the virus as it is gripping our planet in its infectious grasp. Globally the amount of infected people has exceeded two million, with numbers continuously skyrocketing upwards. The undeniable effect that the COVID-19 is having on the world’s population is unprecedented in recent history. It’s very likely that societies will change in order to combat or prevent a future pandemic from heavily impacting the world’s economy and disrupting everyday life.

While the destruction the COVID-19 will reap on the world is certainly severe, there can be at least one benefit that has resulted from it. Pollution levels have greatly decreased. However, holistically speaking, what impact is the COVID-19 having on the environment? The world has been both positively and negatively affected as a result of the global pandemic.

Seven million people die each year from air pollution, of which one million of those deaths are reported from China. From February-March, China’s carbon emissions were down by 25 per cent. This is a staggering figure, as half of the world’s coal supply is burned by China each year, with the country contributing 25 per cent of the world’s total climate pollution per year.

Videos of clear, healthy waters can be seen in Venice. Normally these waters would be muddied by the pollution from boat traffic, but now fish can clearly be seen in Venetian waters.

Stamford University Assistant Professor Marshall Burke, believes the improved air quality could have already saved 50,000-75,000 people from prematurely dying in China. However, this was a small win for the people in China, as reports say the country’s coal consumption and nitrogen dioxide had returned to normal levels by the end of March.

Further, the global transport sector contributes 23 percent of global carbon emissions. These emissions have understandably fallen in countries like Italy, France and the United States where lockdowns are in place, limiting movement and travel. Driving contributes 72 percent, while aviation makes up 11 percent of the transport sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. Many worldwide airline companies have been forced to significantly reduce their services due to the efficacy within which the COVID-19 can be spread in enclosed spaces.

It must also be addressed that the global pandemic has impacted climate change negatively.

Investment and transition into the production of renewable energy have slowed. BloombergNEF predicts the world’s solar power growth will fall for the first time since the 1980s. Further, the COP26 climate in Glasgow which was initially planned for November, has been pushed back to October 2021.

If there is anything that this pandemic has taught us, it is that when people get scared, they act immediately. Worldwide, people continue to panic-buy toilet rolls, despite the overwhelming evidence that there is ample supply. Imagine if as a society, we could harness that frantic energy and use it to meaningfully change our planet for the better, to ensure that it is habitable for future generations.

It is possible that as a result of seeing blue skies, clean waters and being able to breathe better, many global citizens will want to continue this trend and further work towards that cause. Alternatively, after being unable to travel, this may cause people to rush to see the world and continue exhausting fossil fuels.

If China is anything to go by, then the gears of capitalism will start back up again once the pandemic is over and society will continue its level of pollution like clockwork.

The current global situation has taught us that the selfishness shown through hoarding toilet paper echoes people’s view on the environment; as long as their actions benefit them, it is ok. They have no need to think of their community, or the world as a whole.

It will take a while to fully understand the impact that COVID-19 will have on the environment, as the situation continues to unfold.

The COVID-19 pandemic will have a long shelf life. Despite worldwide efforts, it will take months for a vaccine to be created.

While it has been understood that the COVID-19 will have a positive effect on limiting human pollution, the cost of completely splintering society is too severe a drawback. Humans are part of nature. What we do to nature in turn, affects us. It will be poignant to see if, after the pandemic, we can create economies which better support people without threatening all life on Earth.

George Sagris is a journalist and Honours graduate in Japanese-Chinese politics, based in Tokyo.


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