Coronavirus and the Environment

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The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has caused regions all over the world to go into lockdown, which has had an enormous impact on the environment, in a variety of ways. The coronavirus has had a surprising impact on the environment — but these changes are not permanent or sustainable.

Read on for a breakdown of the relationship between the coronavirus outbreak and the environment

How has coronavirus affected the environment?

For the past few months, the entire world has been affected by the coronavirus, with cities, states, and entire countries being put on lockdown. That means non-essential businesses have closed, fewer airplanes are in the sky (though not as few as there should be), and far fewer cars are on the roads — which means humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels for power has significantly gone down. 

Due to all this, scientists have measured air pollution clearing up in many areas — primarily, reductions in atmospheric nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is a gaseous air pollutant that forms when humans burn fossil fuels.

Coronavirus has improved air quality in China.

The virus is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China, and lockdowns began in the city on Jan. 23. In early March, the NASA Earth Observatory shared a report showing how the concentrations of NO2 in China’s atmosphere went down. In fact, the NO2 concentration is nearly invisible on the map representing Feb. 10 through Feb. 25, 2020, which is when Wuhan was under lockdown. 

First, scientists observed NO2 levels decreasing near Wuhan, but then saw the reduction spread across the rest of the country.

Coronavirus has impacted the environment and air quality in many cities.

As the virus continued to spread around the world, it has continued to impact air quality in many other locations. For example, the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite detected declining NO2 emissions in northern Italy's atmosphere in mid-March. Northern italy is home to Milan, which was the viral hotspot to follow Wuhan.

In India, concentrations of fine particulate matter, aka PM2.5, one of the planet’s smallest and most dangerous air pollutants, dropped by 71 percent over the course of just one week during lockdowns; NO2 levels have also gone down across the country. These changes led to various residents across India noticing cleaner air; not to mention, many people with breathing issues reported finding it easier to breathe. Additionally, the air became clear enough for Punjab residents to see the Himalayan mountains for the first time in decades, from more than 100 miles away.

Air has quality also improved across the U.S., with major cities including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, and Atlanta observing major dips in atmospheric carbon monoxide (CO) and NO2.

How is coronavirus affecting climate change?

Not only has burning less fossil fuels caused atmospheric pollutant levels to gp down around the world, but it also means less greenhouse gases are being emitted into the atmosphere. That means the atmosphere will trap less heat, reducing our contribution to global warming, a major part of the climate crisis.

Coronavirus is impacting wildlife.

With less people in the way, many wild animals have been enjoying free rein of various areas. For example, bears, bobcats, and coyotes have been roaming areas typically filled with humans in Yosemite National Park; lions in South Africa’s Kruger National Park were spotted relaxing on roads that are usually busy with cars; and endangered sea turtles have been hatching on empty beaches in Brazil — to name a few.

Is the environment healing due to the coronavirus?

During the coronavirus lockdowns, there have been so many cases like the above ones that they’ve actually inspired memes, typically riffing on the phrases “nature is healing” and “we are the virus.” So sure, some parts of the environment are temporarily healing — but only in the short term. 

Coronavirus is causing people to litter more.

Even though less people are out and about on the streets, the streets are somehow still filled with litter. That’s because over the past few months, people are littering personal protective equipment (PPE), namely surgical masks and gloves, oftentimes outside of grocery stores and pharmacies.

There’s never an excuse for littering, even — especially — in the middle of a pandemic. Litter can harm wildlife, spread diseases, create additional work for municipal workers, and more.

Coronavirus challenges zero-waste living.

Living in quarantine has certainly caused zero-wasters to sacrifice some of their values — for example, many zero-wasters have had to purchase more products packaged in plastic than they normally would, as well as single-use PPE. Right now, staying safe during the pandemic is more important than preventing some trash from going to the landfill, and there are so many lessons we can learn in terms of low-impact living during the quarantines.

COVID-19’s impacts on the climate are not permanent.

While it’s tempting to regard these changes to air quality and wildlife as positive things, epidemiologist and McGill University associate professor Jill Baumgartner is hesitant to do so.

“This really shouldn’t be seen as a silver lining,” Baumgartner told The New York Times recently. “It’s not a sustainable way to reduce air pollution, and the long-term economic and well-being impacts of this crisis are going to be devastating for many people.”

When the lockdowns end and “real life” resumes, humans will likely go back to burning fossil fuels at the same rates they were before the virus, and air pollution rates will shoot back up. But hopefully these events will finally be the proof skeptics need to see how quickly the Earth responds to human activity — and perhaps it will inspire people to start working even harder to help shift society to a renewable energy economy.

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.

Image source: Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images