No one could have foreseen the global chaos that would accompany the year 2020 with the advent of COVID-19. Even less anticipated was the impact the virus would have on our environment.
The early months of this year mimicked a post-apocalyptic blockbuster film. Streets were deserted after authorities ordered country-wide lockdowns and some of the most extensive travel restrictions were implemented since World War Two. Restaurants, bustling pubs, bars and theatres were closed, and people were told to stay in their homes. Globally, flights were cancelled, borders were closed, and economies shut down.
Along with this decline in human activity, and the ensuing fall of global economies and industries, transport networks also closed down, bringing about a sharp and noticeable drop in carbon emissions. Compared with this time last year, levels of pollution in New York have reduced by nearly 50% because of measures to contain the virus.
This veritable drop in pollution and greenhouse gases, along with the return of many species to areas in which they had previously become scarce, suggests that our environment has finally been afforded the opportunity to breathe and hit the reset button.
Is this just a fleeting change, or could it lead to longer-lasting falls affects?
Improved Air Quality
While the restrictions have sent financial markets into free fall, they have also given residents in some of the world’s most polluted cities something they have not experienced in years: clean air.
Around the world, lockdowns have led to improvements in air pollution. In northern India, the Himalayas were visible in the distance for the first time in a generation. During the first nine weeks of the UK lockdown, nitrogen dioxide along London’s roads decreased by an average of 31% compared with the pre-lockdown period.
Air pollution directly affects our climate and can bring about drastic changes in ecosystems, which can, in turn, exacerbate infectious disease outbreaks. The quality of air in China has been declining rapidly over the past few years, which resulted in higher hospitalisations due to preexisting respiratory infections. However, the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have temporarily improved the air quality with fewer people on the streets.
International air travel has also decreased dramatically since the advent of COVID-19 due to the implementation of stringent travel restrictions. Most likely, these actions have had similar positive effects on reducing air pollution, even if just temporarily.
Animals Make a Comeback
While humans confined to their homes under global lockdown, wild animals all over the planet came out to reclaim their territory. The re-emergence of wild animals in urban areas is a direct result of the ensuing peace and calm with no humans around, thus attracting these animals into residential areas. A great example of this is the resurfacing of the rare pink dolphins in Hong Kong waters since COVID-19 restrictions halted ferry travel.
Similarly, certain species of the avian world have been able to flourish and enjoy all the freedom of nature. For one, a growing flock of thousands of flamingos was seen splashing in the glistening water of Nartan Lagoon, in the Adriatic coast.
Spotless Coastal Areas
Thanks to the ban on travel, human pressure on the natural world has waned, causing a significant decrease in the degradation and pollution of beaches the world over. Moreover, the complete closure of various industrial activities has almost halted the pollution entirely, causing a remarkable change in the appearance of many beaches in the world.
The implementation of social distancing measures and quarantine directives have led to considerable decreases in commuting and travel as many jobs shift to working from home. The widespread quarantines and travel restrictions imposed by several countries have resulted in reduced use of and demand for oil and its products, which has caused reduced emissions of smoke and waste.
So, what are the negatives?
Destabilisation of Global Economies
Loss of life in any form causes irreparable damage to society; however, the COVID-19 pandemic, apart from taking a massive toll on human life, has severely disbanded the global economy.
Border closures suspended transports and nearly all the COVID-19-traumatised nations, industries, and entire commercial, educational, religious, and sports institutions were closed. All these restrictions have had a catastrophic and far-reaching effect on global economies.
The increased use of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) as well as their haphazard disposal, has generated a considerable amount of hospital waste, triggering a massively negative impact on the environment. To make matters worse, many countries have stopped waste recycling programmes altogether out of concern for the risk of COVID-19 spreading in the recycling centres, thus further exacerbating the build-up of medical waste.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a global health emergency with severe consequences for health and the worldwide economy. Still, it can also serve as an example that changes in travel and production habits can drastically improve air quality and reduce carbon footprints, which translates to improved environmental and human health.
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