The primary positive that emerged from the outbreak of COVID-19 is the human population’s increased awareness of their ecological footprint. Habitat destruction and wildlife trade are two ways in which the human population has disrupted ecosystems. A habitat is said to be destroyed when there is a surplus of organisms dying or being displaced due to the habitat not being able to support its native species sustainably.
This phenomenon is mainly a result of urbanization, agriculture and exploiting the natural land for resources. In that short space of time, we become a geological force changing the Earth’s landscape. Between 1993 to 2016 alone, we have managed to destroy a tenth of the Earth’s remaining wilderness in the last 25 years; reduce rainforest cover from 14% to 6%, and wipe out 60% of animal populations since 1970. By destroying natural habitats we have paved the way for a surge in human to wildlife contact resulting in spillover. This means that our actions drove foreign pathogens into the human population. The most accepted explanation of the initial emergence of Covid-19 is wildlife trade in Wuhan, China. This practice takes wild animals out of their natural habitats where they are to be sold as food (often illegally) in wet markets. So although the disease was not directly manufactured by human beings in a laboratory, it emerged by human actions disrupting nature through the means of displacing wild species for economic gain. Also, being quarantined has led many to self-reflect on their adverse environmental impacts. Many people were shocked when they realised how much energy they utilise in a day and unnecessary travels. For example, during quarantine, many scheduled conferences were moved online. These included the World Literacy Summit, The United Nations Youth Assembly and many corporate and academic conferences. This shift has made many reevaluate if spending hundreds of dollars, experiencing jet lag and contributing to climate change was worth it for events such as these.
Through these realisations, citizens and government officials alike have started to recognise that we could be waiting on another time bomb that is the climate crisis if we do not act soon. This has led to multiple countries taking pledges to incorporate ‘green recovery’ in their economic restoration schemes. Multiple countries in Europe have implemented the ‘European Green Deal’ into their post-COVID recovery schemes and the European Commission has allocated 25% of its $848 billion recovery fund to climate action. Also, South Korea has pledged to boost the green energy sector by 2020 through investing USD 10.8 billion.
The second positive that rose due to the COVID-19 is that it showed us we are capable of quickly altering our daily routines and traditional habits in a crisis. Many climate change proponents have argued that (in theory) it is not feasible to drastically change our daily activities such as commuting long distances, burning fossil fuels to combat climate change and to keep the global temperature rise within the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit. However, COVID-19 has demonstrated how we can radically change our lifestyle. The two possible lifestyle changes that will occur (inspired by the pandemic) are the prospects of increased work from home and reduced vehicle usage.
City planners in Milan are seeking to allocate 35km of street space for cyclists and pedestrians. The UK is also following suit and are developing a £2bn infrastructure scheme that aims to encourage walking and cycling. London urban planners are planning to reduce traffic congestion by creating car-free bridges and streets. In regards to working from home, Facebook has indicated that they will allow most employees to work from home even until the end of 2020. Many companies have adopted technologies that allow employees to connect remotely and have realised that employers can save around $11,000 annually for every employee who works from home for the duration of 6 months. Allowing employees to work from home reduces increased emissions from cars and public transport that contribute to climate change.
The third and most distinct positive of COVID-19 on climate change can be observed quantitatively. In New York, carbon dioxide emissions have decreased by 5-10%, in China, a whopping reduction of 25% was achieved since the beginning of the year. A collection of research papers have indicated that emissions of carbon dioxide will decrease by 4-8% which approximates to 2-3 billion tonnes of gas. All these changes occurred due to fossil fuel industries’ activities declining.
You may be thinking COVID-19 was a blessing helping us tackle climate change however some negative aspects have surfaced due to this pandemic. Firstly, there is a possibility that the pandemic has given us a false sense of environmental improvement as once lockdown measures are relieved, many believe that countries will try to increase economic output as fast as possible which will consequently rebound the global emissions. This outcome was observed after the global recession of 2008. Evidence of this President Donald Trump has signed to permit federal agencies to renounce environmental reviews for projects such as highways and pipelines to increase economic recovery. This also allows fossil fuel companies to delay collecting and reporting their greenhouse gas emissions which weakens the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Another negative is the disruption of climate conferences and negotiations. The Paris Climate Accord (COP26) was set to proceed in November 2020 but has been postponed to 2021. This delay could encourage countries to neglect to incorporate climate change into their post COVID recovery. Climate scientists have also shared their distress as lockdown measures have prevented the collection of scientific data on the current trends of climate change, thus preventing them from refining climate models. The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory labs of Columbia University closed in March and a project that entailed examining coral fossil samples to predict the effects of climate change on sea-levels was cancelled. The cancellation of research expeditions has resulted in a decreased ability of earth scientists to monitor the ocean’s response to climate change.
The pandemic has also been linked to deforestation in the Amazon. Whilst the government focused on controlling the virus and citizens were in lockdown copious loggers and miners took this chance to illegally cut down 464 square miles of rainforest between January and April. The decrease in forest cover has reduced Amazon’s ability to take in carbon dioxide.
Whilst it is important to celebrate the positive visible environmental impacts of COVID-19, this pandemic has also shown us that when we look closer we usually find hidden negative impacts.