Will the Coronavirus Have Any Long-Lasting Effects on the Climate?

COVID-19 is having so many effects on the climate — but will any of them be long-lasting?

Sophie Hirsh - Author

May 12 2020, Updated 5:36 p.m. ET

los angeles climate effects coronavirus
Source: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Los Angeles.

As the world has battled the coronavirus pandemic and subsequently a pretty depressing news cycle over the past few months, positive news stories have been in high demand. And just in time, COVID-19’s lockdowns inspired a new kind of positive news story — that of nature “healing itself,” as evidenced by animals flourishing without people walking and driving through their habitats, and air pollution clearing up thanks to far less cars being on the roads, and more.

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Many people latched onto these stories as a sign of hope during this scary time, while others simply meme’d the hell out of it. But conversely, many experts cautioned that these seemingly-positive impacts on nature were only temporary, and would have no lasting effect — because once this is all over and regular life resumes, things will probably just go back to “normal.”

But the longer this pandemic lasts, and the more of these stories — lions and flamingos and bears, oh my! — we read, the more they add up. Are these phenomena — namely, reduced air pollution levels in major cities around the world — simply short-term side effects? Or could any of these impacts on the environment be long-lasting?

Will the pandemic have any long-term effects on the climate?

While it’s hard to predict exactly what a post-coronavirus world will look like, there are several ways that the pandemic is positively impacting the planet that actually hold some long-lasting potential.

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Turtles nesting in Thailand will live for decades.

turtle corona
Source: iStock

Most of the stories we’ve heard about animals “thriving” during lockdowns have seemed pretty temporary. For example, mountain lions are relaxing on roads in Africa’s Kruger National Park; bears, bobcats, and coyotes are taking over Yosemite National Park; and record-breaking flamingo migrations are turning Mumbai pink.

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However, in some areas, the lockdowns have had positive effects on wild animal breeding rates — and that’s when the seemingly-short-term effects gain long-term potential. For example, in Phuket, Thailand, empty beaches have given endangered leatherback sea turtles the space to nest at the highest rate Thailand's beaches have seen in 20 years.

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"This may have positive impacts on the environment in marine conservation in the long term as well," Kanokwan Homcha-ai, supervisor of the Mai Khao Marine Turtle Foundation, told CNN. "Not just sea turtles, but other marine species such as dolphins and dugong that live in the region have also increased in numbers according to government survey, such as hermit crabs and other food sources for marine animals."

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When lockdowns end and tourists repopulate Phuket’s beaches, the leatherback sea turtle nesting rate will likely slow down again — but the turtles who were born during the pandemic will continue to grow.

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There could be a push for green jobs as economies rebuild.

green jobs
Source: iStock

In the U.K., many experts believe that as the country rebuilds its economy and reemploys those left jobless during the pandemic, there should be a focus on switching to green jobs. For example, the U.K. Committee on Climate Change (CCC), penned an open letter to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, urging him to support retraining unemployed workers for green jobs as the country tries to rebound the economy from the pandemic.

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Similarly, a group of researchers from the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment (SSEE) published a working paper on how the U.K. should use government stimulus packages following the pandemic. The researchers think the government money should be used to retrain the unemployed members of the workforce for green jobs, which would simultaneously help reverse unemployment rates, restore the economy, and fight the climate crisis.

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If the U.K. government — or any other national government, for that matter — decides to rebuild its economy with this focus on green jobs, it could have monumental, long-lasting effects. For one thing, it would provide job security for those who are currently unemployed, since jobs in renewable energy and other forward-thinking fields are more sustainable career paths than working in fossil fuels, from which the world desperately needs to transition away.

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Additionally, it would help the U.K. lower its emissions, get closer to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, and mitigate its contribution to the climate crisis. The U.K. (and other countries) actually listening to these recommendations is potentially a best-case scenario for joint economic and climate recovery after the coronavirus pandemic.

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People are seeing how that their habits have an impact on the planet.

madrid air
Source: Eduardo Parra/ Europa Press via Getty Images

Clear skies in Madrid seen from Cuatro Vientos during the 46th day of the state of alarm.

From northern Italy to New Delhi to the U.S.’s most polluted cities, areas all over the world have experienced significant reductions in air pollution during the coronavirus lockdowns. Experts primarily attribute the improved air quality to the reduction in vehicular emissions, since far less cars have been on the roads over the past few months.

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Unfortunately, these reductions in air pollution are largely short-term, and emissions will rise once daily bumper-to-bumper traffic resumes, according to epidemiologist and McGill University associate professor Jill Baumgartner. “This really shouldn’t be seen as a silver lining,” Baumgartner told The New York Times, referring to the pollution drops in the U.S. “It’s not a sustainable way to reduce air pollution.”

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While the dip in emissions will not be long-lasting, the message is clear: drastic changes in human activity do have an impact on the environment. And maybe the recent improvements in air quality are helping some climate skeptics finally see that. 

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On the flip side, this also shows that while changes in human activity are significant, they are not enough alone to stop the climate crisis — what we need even more is climate action and regulations from governments, industries, and corporations. Perhaps this will be the final push that those in power need to make some changes for the greater good.

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Consumers have learned more about the dangers of the animal agriculture industry.

cows coronavirus
Source: Christoph Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images

President Trump has put undue pressure on the animal agriculture industry to keep slaughterhouses in operation during the pandemic, even though slaughterhouses across the U.S. have had high transmission rates of the coronavirus between workers, who work in close proximity on the kill floor.

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Farmers have desperately tried to stay in operation — allowing them to continue collecting their government subsidies — even if that means pouring cow’s milk that can’t be sold down drains and “depopulating” (aka killing) animals and discarding their bodies instead of processing the dead animals into meat products.

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Many Americans have seen this treatment of slaughterhouse workers throughout the coronavirus outbreak as an injustice — not to mention, there’s the fact that the coronavirus was first transmitted from an animal to a human in a live animal market (aka a wet market) in China. 

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The link between humans raising animals for food and COVID-19 has inspired some people to look at their consumption of animal products, and become vegetarian, reducetarian, or vegan. Perhaps as more information about both how animal agriculture caused COVID-19 and how slaughterhouse workers are being treated during the pandemic continues to spread, more factory farms will close, and more people will go vegan — and that could have a massive positive effect on the planet. 

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Animal agriculture is responsible for about 18 percent of all human-induced GHG emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). And as a landmark University of Oxford study found, switching to a vegan diet is one of the most powerful changes someone can make to lower their environmental impact. So if the pandemic inspires conscientious citizens to stop supporting animal agriculture, the impact could be monumental.

The best way to prevent contracting or spreading coronavirus is with thorough hand washing and social distancing. If you feel you may be experiencing symptoms of coronavirus, which include persistent cough (usually dry), fever, shortness of breath, and fatigue, please call your doctor before going to get tested. For comprehensive resources and updates, visit the CDC website. If you are experiencing anxiety about the virus, seek out mental health support from your provider or visit NAMI.org.

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