Environmental Impacts of the Coronavirus Shutdowns
Wed, April 21, 2021

Environmental Impacts of the Coronavirus Shutdowns



The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the shutdowns of many countries across the world as the virus continues to infect and kill hundreds of thousands of people. It has taken millions of people off the streets, forcing them to stay at home and avoid physical contact. Unfortunately, the pandemic has brought widespread job losses and threatened the livelihoods of many people. Many businesses are also struggling to cope with the restrictions being put in place to control the virus. Economic activity has been paralyzed as well.

But, among all these negative impacts, recent news shows how Earth is somehow taking a breath from humans. The environment is benefiting in some interesting and unexpected ways. For instance, the waters in Venice’s canals are cleaner than they have been in living memory due to the dramatic decline of water pollutants. In most areas of Venice, residents have been amazed by how clear the water has become. For a split second, we might think that we are on our way towards a decarbonized and sustainable economy that many of us have been advocating for decades. 

Unfortunately, this kind of economy will take years to be achieved. Nonetheless, the coronavirus impacts are doing good for our environment, thus, showing us how Earth can be better if we only become more conscious of our planet. Inger Andersen, the United Nation's environment chief, stated that nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis. She emphasized how our human activity has contributed to both global heating and the destruction of the natural world for farming, mining, and housing, leading to a pandemic like this. 

“Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people. Our continued erosion of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbor diseases that can jump to humans,” Andersen said.


Decrease in Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Recent reports showed that greenhouse gas emissions in China have decreased by 25% as people were instructed to stay home. Satellite images show nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions in Europe are fading way over northern Italy. A similar story is playing out in the UK and Spain. According to Politico Europe, an online site that covers the politics, policy and personalities of the European Union, the last time carbon emissions fell was during the economic crisis in 2008-2009. 

According to CNET, an American media website that publishes reviews, news, articles, blogs, podcasts, and videos on technology and consumer electronics globally, the reductions in coal and crude oil burning has led to a 25% decrease in carbon dioxide emissions in China. A recent analysis by Lauri Myllyvirta of the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air showed that the decline amounts to approximately 100 metric tons of carbon dioxide or 6% of global emissions over the same period. 

With that, many reports predicted that global carbon dioxide emissions are likely to drop this year due to the global economy faltering. Due to the decline, some experts claim that countries may be able to meet their Paris Climate Accord goals since sectors like transportation and production come to a grinding halt. "The coronavirus is driving us towards the emission reduction targeted by international climate agreements such as the Paris Agreement. So, the outbreak has forced us to reduce emissions that we cannot meet [with the targets] normally," Huseyin Toros, of Istanbul Technical University, said. 



Cleaner Air

With many people around the world self-isolating voluntarily or by official edict, many countries and cities across the world are seeing their air quality improve. For instance, researchers found out that there has been a 5% to 10% drop in air pollutants like carbon dioxide in New York. Methane emissions have also dropped significantly, while carbon monoxide emissions dropped by 50%. “New York has had exceptionally high carbon monoxide numbers for the last year and a half. And this is the cleanest I have ever seen it. It’s less than half of what we normally see in March,” Columbia Professor Róisín Comman said. 

According to CNBC, the world leader in business news and real-time financial market coverage, recent satellite images from NASA’s Earth Observatory show significant drops in pollution across China and Italy since the start of the outbreak. This is primarily due to travel restrictions that halt air, train and road traffic. The European Space Agency's Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite also showed similar reductions in air pollution over northern Italy after lockdowns were put in place there a few weeks later. "The reduction in emissions that we can see, coincides with the lockdown in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities," Claus Zehner, ESA's Copernicus Sentinel-5P mission manager, said. 

One of the largest drops of nitrogen dioxide emissions is seen in Wuhan, China, which has been under strict lockdown since January. The gas is mainly produced by car engines, power plants, and other industrial processes. Since most of its 11 million citizens have been confined to their homes, this has resulted in a 10% to 30% in emissions over the period.



Decline in Emissions From Coal Combustion

China is known to be one of the biggest producers and consumers of coal, consuming around 59% of it for their energy needs in 2018. According to Interesting Engineering, a cutting edge, leading community designed for all lovers of engineering, technology, and science, this has been helping the country run its industries. It is also used as a domestic fuel source for many of its citizens. 

Recent reports show that there was a 36% drop in consumption between February and March this year from China's major coal-fired power stations. This not only improved the country’s air quality but also reduced the number of airborne pollutants such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrous oxides. 

While these environmental impacts are somehow improving the status of our planet, experts remind the public that a global pandemic that is claiming people’s lives shouldn’t be seen as a way of bringing about environmental change. No one’s sure how long this dip in emissions will last. It should also be noted that when the pandemic eventually subsides, carbon and pollutant emissions might “bounce back.”