As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds across the globe, threatening lives and upending the world economy, it’s also had a profound impact on the environment.
Scientists first noticed a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in China, where the pandemic began. This trend followed the pandemic’s spread across the world.
Meanwhile, viral social media posts started to pop up about wildlife sightings in urban areas, claiming “nature just hit the reset button on us.”
Less reported has been the dramatic rise in medical waste and packaging from online shopping.
In this post, we’ll look at the full environmental impact of the COVID-19 crisis to date and what lessons we can take from this tragedy to fight climate change in the future.
First, let’s look at the data via our exclusive infographic:
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So, what do these statistics and anecdotes mean for the environment in the short and long-term? What lessons can we take from them to fight climate change and stop global warming in the future? Let’s take a look by category.
Table of Contents:
- Coronavirus impact on carbon emissions
- Coronavirus impact on waste
- Coronavirus impact on wildlife
- Coronavirus impact on energy
- Scientists on lessons we can apply from the pandemic to climate change
- Businesses on sustainability initiatives planned post-crisis
1. Coronavirus pandemic’s impact on carbon emissions
With lockdown or stay at home orders in effect in countries across the globe due to the coronavirus pandemic, there’s been a steep decline in travel and economic activity worldwide.
Traffic congestion in major cities fell dramatically as a result. In New York, peak congestion went down 47 percent from the 2019 average on the morning of March 23. Los Angeles experienced a 51 percent drop, according to Fox News and the TomTom Traffic Index.
With less traffic comes less pollutants like carbon monoxide. Of course, once non-essential employees are allowed to return to their place of work, traffic congestion and pollution will rise accordingly. Will there be any lasting effect on the environment?
One clue comes from Wuhan, China where the outbreak began in late 2019. Traffic is still down 50 percent as of late March, even as restrictions have been lifted and employees have returned to their jobs.
Air travel has also taken a major hit, thanks to order to shelter in place, and greenhouse gases will predictably decline too.
Airplane emissions of carbon dioxide reached over 900 million tons in 2018 and are projected to triple by 2050, according to the United Nations aviation body. The issue is that even as airlines are becoming more fuel efficient, the increase in demand was projected to outweigh these gains.
And yet, suddenly demand has dropped drastically. In the first three months of 2020, 67 million fewer passengers flew in Europe compared to the year before, says Airports Council International.
In the U.S., domestic air traffic fell about 40 percent, according to NPR. Though cancellations have been greater worldwide than in the US, nor have states instituted domestic air travel restrictions.
Still, while this trend will cut greenhouse gas emissions from air travel, the result has also been mass layoffs and voluntary unpaid leave.
Effect on carbon emissions
Surface concentrations of nitrogen dioxide over northern Italy, comparison between 31 January and 15 March 2020. (Credit: Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS); ECMWF)
Has the drop in traffic and air travel had a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions such as nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide?
It appears so. China’s carbon emissions fell by around 25 percent over a four-week period after Chinese New Year, according to Carbon Brief.
One controversial study from G-Feed said that improvements in air quality recorded in China over two months this year may have saved the lives of 4,000 children under five years old and 73,000 adults over 70 years old.
Elsewhere, northern Italy reported a 10 percent reduction in the pollutant nitrogen dioxide per week over the four to five weeks before March 17. The area has been hit hard by COVID-19 and been in lockdown.
The improvement in air quality was even more apparent in Madrid, Spain due to stay at home orders for the entire country. The average level of nitrogen dioxide recorded on March 17 was almost 75 percent lower than the previous week. And in New York City, carbon monoxide, mainly from cars, had been reduced by nearly 50 percent compared with March 2019.
Short-term vs. long-term effects on climate change
Unfortunately, this dip in carbon emissions will likely only last as long as the virus does. Activity will ramp up once the pandemic subsides, creating a rebound effect seen in other crises, says Spanish newspaper El Pais.
The 2008 financial crisis caused a 1 percent dip in carbon dioxide but once the economy recovered, emissions crept back up–at a rate faster then before the crisis.
The bottom line? “We will not fight climate change with a virus,” said UN Secretary-General Anthonio Guterres on March 13.
After all, measures to halt coronavirus’s spread will not have a long-lasting effect on climate change. Structural change is needed. But the fact remains that some pre-existing trends, like the rise of remote work, have been accelerated with the pandemic and will have lasting effects on cutting carbon emissions and slowing global warming.
Coronavirus pandemic’s impact on waste
The huge demand for disposable medical products such as single-use gloves, surgical masks and empty IV bags in the wake of the pandemic has created a deluge of medical waste.
In Wuhan, China, the volume of medical waste is reported to have risen from 40 to 240 tons a day at the height of the epidemic, according to the South China Morning Post. Medical waste facilities in 29 cities were at or near full capacity.
Masks used by healthcare workers are sterilized and then go to landfill or are incinerated. But Chinese manufacturers were also making 116 million masks a day by the end of February. It’s unknown yet how quickly the public has been using and disposing of these masks–which the government suggests people wear in public.
The surge in solid medical waste is just beginning to confront the US. And not only is this an environmental issue, but it puts the 467,000 workers employed by the U.S. waste collection and disposal industry at risk.
The upside? The US has more capacity at its medical waste treatment centers than China does to deal with medical waste, says Bloomberg.
But, that still doesn’t address the home garbage and recycling put out by both sick and asymptomatic individuals. So far provision of PPE and guidelines to protect waste workers have been scattershot.
Plastic packaging is enjoying an increase in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic. Seen as a more sanitary option, shopper spend in Europe on packaged food products is soaring.
In Italy, consumer spend on packaged mandarins rose over 111 percent in the week ending on March 8, versus the same period in 2019. This is despite the fact there’s been no evidence that either food or food packaging can transmit COVID-19.
In the US, reusable bags have been banned in New Hampshire, Illinois and Massachusetts, says MarketWatch. Republicans are lobbying Washington, New York and New Jersey to ban or delay their respective plastic bag bans.
The argument is that reusable bags are more likely to carry the coronavirus. While research has found the coronavirus can live for 72 hours on plastic, cloth wasn’t tested.
What is certain is in a 2015 study in the journal Science found that 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic was produced in 192 coastal countries in 2010 — and 4.8 to 12.7 MT of that went into the ocean. The coronavirus pandemic is sure to accelerate this trend.
Online shopping packaging
About 165 billion packages are shipped in the US each year, with the cardboard used roughly equating to more than 1 billion trees, reported LimeLoop. Amazon and meal kit deliveries like Blue Apron are just two e-retailers contributing to the overflow of cardboard and plastic.
Now, with the public afraid to leave the house or under strict shelter in place rules, there’s been a surge in demand for online shopping.
In fact, Amazon’s sales have increased to the point that they announced they need to hire 100,000 new employees to meet demand. The fallout from this huge increase in packaging waste remains to be seen.
The United Nations predicts that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. The coronavirus pandemic will undoubtably accelerate this trend, while contributing to other problems–clogging drainage systems, litter and releasing pollutants when burned.
An executive at a large waste company said 300 customers have already suspended service this week, reports Politico.
This is up from just 25 suspensions last Friday, meaning less commercial waste. The executive expects that number to grow to 1,000 soon. Whether this trend will balance out the increase in consumer waste discussed above remains to be seen.
Coronavirus pandemic’s impact on wildlife
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, an idea began circulating online that the earth is regenerating itself. Supposed sightings of wildlife roaming free in urban areas gained tens of thousands of likes and shares.
Some of these reports proved to be true and others, picked up by the likes of the Guardian and the Japan Times, were false.
In Nara, Japan, sika deer wandered through city streets and subway stations because the tourists who normally fed them in city parks have evaporated.
Indian social media went wild about footage of a stag scampering through Dehradun, the capital of the northern state of Uttarakhand. A puma turned up in the center of the Chilean capital Santiago, which is under curfew. Neither of these accounts have been disproven.
Other accounts overlooked the fact that these animals were already regular visitors to these areas. Wild boar have long descended the hills around Barcelona to look for food and antagonize people. Gangs of wild turkeys have long been a regular sight in Oakland, California.
Venice hasn’t seen clear canal water in a very long time. Dolphins showing up too. Nature just hit the reset button on us pic.twitter.com/RzqOq8ftCj
— Luca De Santis (@yesaints) March 17, 2020
Probably the most famous story was the viral social media post reporting that dolphins and swans had returned to Venice’s canals. Fake news, says National Geographic. The dolphins were filmed outside Venice and swans are regular visitors to the canals.
The popularity of these animal stories shows the need to find meaning in this devastating global pandemic and that there is a purpose behind the thousands of deaths. Not to mention that emotions are running high and happy animal footage can feel like the perfect antidote to stress.
Coronavirus pandemic’s impact on energy
The Internet Exchange in Frankfurt set a new world record for data throughput on March 10, resulting in more energy usage.
At more than 9.1 Terabits per second, a new sound barrier has been broken–thanks to more people streaming video and searching for information on coronavirus.
Italy had a roughly 70 percent increase in broadband demand and France had a 30 percent increase, CNN reported. In South Korea, online gaming activity jumped 30 percent between March 5 and March 12, while streaming of content from anime sites has doubled.
Save On Energy discovered that the energy produced from the 64 million streams of the third season of Stranger Things is comparable to driving more than 420 million miles and emitting over 189 million kg of CO2. That’s the equivalent of driving from Marrakech to Cape Town and back 28,391 times.
Transportation is actually the leading contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, not electricity
Not everyone agrees that streaming is so energy intensive. Experts argue that streaming content is largely hosted locally and doesn’t take much energy to retrieve, reports Mashable. On the other hand, big data and algorithms, like those used to display different products to diiferent online shoppers, eat up much more computational energy via huge data centers.
Data centers consume 1.5 percent of the total power in the U.S, according to 2007 government data. The move to remote working in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic lessens reliance on enterprise servers, but more on cloud services which requires its own energy-guzzling data centers.
Still, data centers only contribute to 0.3 percent of the world’s carbon emissions and take up 1 percent of global energy demand, says Nature. In the broad scheme of things, an increase in both streaming and big data won’t have as big an impact as other factors, like a rapid rise in medical waste.
In summary: the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the environment
Most environmental impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, such as a decline in carbon emissions and increase in medical waste, will be temporary.
The real lesson lies in some pre-existing climate-friendly trends which have been accelerated. Business travel could decline, as executives realize video conferences can achieve the same effect. International trade might roll back as countries realize how reliant they are on the global supply chain and decide to produce their own goods, says the Yale Environment 360.
French President Emmanuel Macron attends a video conference with other European Union leaders at the Élysée Palace in Paris on March 10. AP PHOTO/MICHEL EULER
And the demand for remote work has long existed. Companies may now finally realize workers can still be productive from home, while downsizing offices or getting rid of them altogether (and the expenses associated with them).
Doubtless, the loss of life from COVID-19 will be devastating. There is nothing to celebrate about such a horrific tragedy. It is perhaps a small victory against such a reality to learn from what’s happened and apply it to fight climate change and slow global warming in the future.
Scientist on lessons from the coronavirus pandemic we can apply to fight climate change
We asked environmental scientists, science writers and NGOs what lessons can we take from the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the environment in order to fight climate change and stop global warming in the future. Is there anything we can learn from this tragedy going forward to reduce waste, emissions and our carbon footprint? Here are their responses.
The revenue shortfall state governments will be experiencing from the impending recession will lead them to new revenue sources by necessity. This would be a good time to try creative revenue generation sources–fuel taxes, congestion fees, carbon taxes/emission allowances–that can help them get over this hump and help the environment.
-Rob Moore, Principal, Scioto Analysis
COVID-19 gives me hope regarding climate change, and here’s why: as we work together to flatten the curve for coronavirus, we are learning lessons that can be applied to the climate change crisis. The international scientific community came together swiftly and is working closely on a COVID-19 response. This proves that the global community is capable of working collaboratively to solve a problem bigger than any one of our respective countries. The connection between COVID-19 and climate change is also being referenced regularly, and conversations about the environment are coming from outlets you would not typically see.
-Katie Rothenberg, Managing Director, Paladino and Company
There are a number of similarities between the COVID-19 crisis and climate change, including that they demand early and aggressive action to flatten the curve. In the case of climate change, it is the emissions curve. There is a significant cost to denying scientific expertise, so we need to act quickly and appropriately. The extent to how extreme either one of these global crises gets, depends on our actions.
-Jen Kretser, Director of Climate Initiatives, The Wild Center
One of the things that we can learn from the pandemic’s effects on the environment is that we CAN actually have an impact if there were a global effort to do so. It is inspiring how cities that have extreme levels of air pollution, from Los Angeles to New Delhi, people are seeing the difference of what the air and life quality would be like if there were a minimal number of cars and emissions from polluting industries. Although we don’t yet have the data available, it is likely that the reduction in air pollution is responsible for the anecdotal observation of reduced numbers of asthma and heart attack episodes coming into the emergency departments. Another lesson will be how productive many workers can be while working from home when they are given the proper tools. I think that many companies will see the value of having many workers work from home, reducing the need for commuting and also reducing the office space needed to conduct business.
-Dr. Luz Claudio, Professor of Environmental Medicine and Public Health, drluzclaudio.com
While most countries are seeing a reduction in carbon emissions and other air pollutants during the Covid-19 pandemic, the trend is not likely to be long lasting. There is no indication that people will permanently change travel and consumption habits as a result of the pandemic and emissions are expected to return to previous levels. There is one hope, though: the demand for online communication tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Skype has skyrocketed and many employers have been forced to implement policies of teleworking. With the technology and employer policies in place, we can only hope employees will be allowed and maybe even encouraged to work from home more often after the pandemic is over. This may be one way we will see a reduction in carbon emission as a result of Covid-19.
-Seth Newton, Ph.D. in Applied Environmental Science, OutMoreUSA.com
If we are able to “reset” our thinking after the coronavirus, we can be motivated to be more eco-friendly in our day to day lives. Jobs that can be done remotely should stay that way, for example, to minimize the use of cars and public transport. People will have learned to be more resourceful and less wasteful during this time, shopping more sustainably out of necessity. I think we can try to look on the positive side after the coronavirus and carry our new found zero-waste habits into the future. I think it is possible to heal the planet faster than we expected after what we’ve seen with the coronavirus. The whole world doesn’t need to stop for positive environmental changes to happen, but small lifestyle adjustments from people all over the world that can go a long way to help the environment.
-Casper Ohm, Senior Research Scientist, Water Pollution Institute
Business leaders on sustainability initiatives planned post-crisis
We asked business leaders how they plan on reducing their business’s negative impact on the environment once the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided?
The way we work has changed drastically in the past month, resulting in less emissions. Do they plan on allowing their employees more work from home days, limiting air travel, buying from local suppliers, cutting down on office garbage etc.?
Here are their responses.
As a company that could be completely remote, we have always resisted going down that path for fear we would lose some of the creative energy that goes into our best products and services. As the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded, we implemented an immediate shift to a work from home strategy, one that has been a success so far. Such a success, in fact, that management has discussed the possibility of a policy that allows two work from home days each week. If we wanted to get more radical, though, the idea has been floated to leave our workforce remote and get rid of the home office, which would save the company money on rent and utilities and certainly reduce our negative environmental impact.
-Nelson Sherwin, Manager, PEO Compare
My clients are clothing retailers and one of the initiatives I’m working on now is using technology to reduce the amount of samples and photoshoots we need, which saves resources and the need for lots of travel. I’ve invested in 3d modelling software and training, to help clients reduce the amount of waste they create in the development process.
-Vicki Wallis, Managing Director, The Fashion Business Coach
My great hope is that the speed at which our current crisis has developed, and the need for every person, and business, to change their behaviour to avert it will act as a lesson in collective responsibility and our ability to make positive change for our future. We already try to reduce our impact by driving electric cars, running on renewable energy, using sustainable paper products, etc but we know that we can do more ourselves, and encourage our clients to do more themselves. My great hope is that the other players in the travel industry, such as the airlines, will push toward cleaner means of transportation, allowing clients to enjoy our villa rentals in Barbados, without harming the environment on their way there.
-George Hammerton, Director, Hammerton Barbados
I recently saw an image circulating on social media of New Delhi before and after the lockdown. Pollution has dropped so much that for the first time in a long time, one can see the real color of the sky instead of just smog. It got me thinking on what I can do to reduce strain on the environment, especially, with New York being as highly populated as New Delhi.One, although my company has always had accommodating work from home policy to encourage work/life balance, once the crisis passes, I will pursue having a larger remote workforce. That will reduce the number of people who need to commute to work. The past few weeks have made it clear that working from home does not reduce productivity. My employees are still highly productive, which means there will be no adverse effect on the business. Second, I will look at providing more options for attending conferences and events. That means finding out if my employees can attend the conferences and events virtually instead of traveling. They are not massive measures, but they are actionable steps I can take to help in mitigating the strain to the environment.
-Reuben Yonatan, Founder and CEO of GetVoIP
We’ve been evolving our remote setup constantly for the last four weeks through a feedback process we’ve put in place, and now we’ve informed our team that we’ll likely go to a full remote set up, instead of return to our WeWork space. The benefits have been clear. It reduces time and pollution traveling, save money, and our employees are much more productive. We also plan to reduce air travel too as we’ve been having successful with remote partner meetings. To replace catered food, we’re also giving our employees a grocery budget. Our employees are telling us that home cooking leads to less waste, and of course it reduces the footprint of bring food to the office. Overall, we think it will be a big win!
-Neal Taparia, Founder, Solitaired
Many of our employees already work from home but we hope to increase that and havemore full-time people working from their own desk. One of the things we would also like to do is offer steep discounts on our services to local businesses.Many of our clients are in broad popular niches like investing but they are not local to us. We want to help stimulate the local economy anyway that we can.
-Jack Choros, CMO, IronMonk Solutions
I had always considered allowing remote positions at my company, and since my employees have tackled this change so well, I think that is a decision I am now willing to implement. As a company who supports social responsibility concerning the environment, allowing my employees to work from home can benefit the environment in a huge way, and supports everything we stand for. As a result, less waste will be produced, less pollution will be emitted, and less energy will be used.
-Ryan Anderson, Founder, Bead the Change
This pandemic has opened my eyes to considering buying our supplies from local sources, to support the local economy as well as the environment. It is obvious how much this pandemic has affected local businesses, and if I can support them while doing my part to lower my personal impact on the earth, all the better!
-Darryl Smith, Founding Partner, Florida Car Accident Lawyer Team
Our products are currently recyclable, but we plan to take it a step further and print the labels directly onto the bottle with biodegradable ink so that the finished product is more environmentally friendly. Currently we use a standard label with adhesive. Making this change will not only be better for the environment, but also be a better aesthetic design decision, so it’s a win-win.
-Calloway Cook, President, Illuminate Labs
The fight to control the virus has many parallels with the struggle to prevent climate catastrophe. Businesses can already start gearing up for that fight, using the momentum already established in virus control. Remote work often saves many hours of useless meetings, focuses the remote meetings more effectively, and increases the productivity of those working from home. This goes well beyond simply allowing workers to continue working from home. Businesses that proactively look to make a profit AND a difference should be dong strategic planing right now for how to not only BE environmental leaders but be SEEN that way–thus building loyalty, goodwill, media coverage, and revenues/profits.
-Shel Horowitz, Green/Transformative Biz Profitability Expert, goingbeyondsustainability.com
Coronavirus pandemic’s impact on environment infographic: sources
- Carbon Brief
- New York Times
- European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts
- El Pais
- ACI Europe
- Fox News
- Mother Jones
- Amazon Blog
- South China Morning Post
- The Wall Street Journal
- Food Navigator
- Market Watch
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