Coronavirus and the Environment

A woman wears a medical mask, with several other people standing behind her.
Source: Getty Images

The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, forced regions all over the world to go into lockdown in 2020, which had an enormous impact on the environment, in a variety of ways. The coronavirus lockdowns 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 the coronavirus affected the environment?

Since early 2020, the entire world has been affected by the coronavirus, with cities, states, and entire countries being put on lockdown. That means non-essential businesses temporarily closed, fewer airplanes were in the sky (though not as few as there should be), and far fewer cars weree on the roads — which means humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels for power temporarily — but significantly — went down.

Due to all this, scientists 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 2020, 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.

COVID-19 has impacted the environment and air quality in many cities.

As the virus continued to spread around the world, it 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 2020. 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 also went 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 quality also temporarily 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 did COVID-19 lockdowns affect climate change?

Not only has burning less fossil fuels caused atmospheric pollutant levels to go 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 enjoyed free rein of various areas. For example, bears, bobcats, and coyotes were seen 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 hatched on empty beaches in Brazil — to name a few.

Is the environment "healing" due to the coronavirus?

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

COVID-19 caused 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 our use of disposable personal protective equipment (PPE) — namely surgical masks and plastic gloves — increased, and therefore so did instances of finding these items littered on the ground.

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 COVID-19 quarantine 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. Staying safe during the pandemic is certainly 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 in 2020. “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.”

As lockdowns and quarantines liftedand “real life” resumed, humanity has gone back to burning fossil fuels at the same rates we were before the virus, leading to air pollution rates going way back up. But in the years since COVID-19 began, climate activism has only grown — perhaps the pandemic made more people aware of how quickly the Earth can respond to human activity.

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