Updated: Dec 2, 2020
From as early as December 31st, when the first outbreak of coronavirus was reported in Wuhan, China, COVID-19 has been the cause of unparalleled economic damage as well as over 770,000 global deaths. As of August 20th in 2020, over twenty-two million cases of coronavirus have been reported in more than one hundred and eighty eight countries. Areas in every corner of the world have been struck and have enforced mandatory quarantines in an attempt to contain the virus. As human activity was reduced throughout a large portion of the year, researchers and corporations have been conducting diverse studies in an attempt to conceptualize the changes in the world caused by the pandemic. Notably, many scientists have centered their attention on climate change, one of the most pressing issues of the decade.
Climate change affects every aspect of human existence. Since the Industrial Revolution, the earth has gradually been getting warmer with the dominant cause being human activity that has driven up carbon emissions - driving more frequent storms, heat waves, and extreme weather events. The planet is already one degree (C°) warmer than it was before industrialization. According to the National Climate Assessment, if society fails to lower global emissions in the following decade, climate change will drastically slow economic growth and severely damage our society’s infrastructure, with no country being spared. The severity of this crisis in the future is solely based on the extent of actions taken now.
As this global pandemic has creeped into every aspect of our daily lives in an unprecedented range of ways, scientists and organizations have intensely researched both the ephemeral and lasting effects of COVID-19 on our planet. The substantial reduction in human activity due to the virus in the past six months have allowed for an exclusive chance to quantify our society’s impact on pollution.
Through extensive research, it has been found that greenhouse gas emissions have plummeted in comparison to other years. In several universities, open-source data was analyzed to determine how ten different pollutants have changed between the months of February and June 2020 in over a hundred countries. It was found that their production dropped significantly, by between ten and thirty percent. Another study by Stanford University estimates that COVID-19 has indirectly saved 77,000 lives in China alone through a reduction of air pollution. This is due to the fact that emissions have dropped over 25% in China, the world’s biggest polluter. Further, satellite images from NASA have shown nitrogen dioxide levels drastically decreasing over the US' east coast and Europe. In March and April, levels of pollution in New York had also been reduced by nearly 50% because of measures to contain the virus.
Additionally, during the months when the buzz of human society came to an abrupt stop, an abundance of wildlife sightings was seen throughout the world. Appearances of fish and dolphins returning to venetian canals were perceived; wild animals were sighted reclaiming empty streets and public areas; and hundreds of dolphins have been detected in some of the world’s busiest maritime routes.
However, although the coronavirus pandemic has entailed certain environmental benefits, it has also brought a dramatic increase in the use of plastic, which happens to be the main component in many items central to our recent hygienic way of life. Environmentalists have warned that an increase in single-use masks, latex gloves, takeout containers, delivery packaging, and protective medical gear employed for sanitary measures are exacerbating ocean pollution. Most single-use masks are made from polypropylene -- a fossil fuel-derived plastic that takes decades to disintegrate. A glut of throwaway plastic is now apparent worldwide, from an abundance of medical waste washing up on the shores of Europe to bans on single-use plastic bags being lifted. Many countries had ambitious goals to slash plastic waste this year, but unfortunately have not been able to follow through. For example, Thailand, who had banned disposable bags and planned to slash plastic waste by 50%, has now observed a thirty percent rise and consumed sixty-eight percent more plastic in April than it had in the past year. A market research firm Frost & Sullivan also announced that the US was generating an entire year’s worth of medical waste in just a sixth of a year due to the pandemic.
Moreover, the shifted attention has almost entirely grounded climate research to a halt. Yet another crucial consequence has been that recycling and waste services have been pronouncedly limited in America, so a significant proportion of the plastic surplus will not even be recycled. Many environmentalists fear that COVID-19 will reverse the momentum of a year’s long fight and create a plastic pandemic.
While it is true that the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced air pollution significantly this year, the lasting climate effects are entirely dependent on the world’s attitude towards climate change as the pandemic ends. Unfortunately, according to an international study led by the University of Leeds, the emission drops will have little to no impact on climate change in the long run unless enormous, structural changes are implemented in our society, such as moving away from fossil fuels. It was found that even if lockdown measures were extended to the end of 2021, global temperatures would only be approximately 0.01 degrees Celsius lower in 2030 than the predicted 2030 temperature as of today.
But according to a study published in the journal “Nature Climate Change”, if just 1.2 percent of the world’s GDP were to be invested in low-carbon technologies post-lockdown, it would be sufficient to slash our current emissions in half. On the other hand, according to another study conducted by MIT, if the policy response was to push back investments in renewable technologies by as little as a year, it would outweigh the emission drop and lives saved through the reduction of air pollution.
After the global financial crisis in 2008, a similar situation existed. According to the NEAA (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency), the growth of greenhouse gas emissions dropped by one half that same year, due to high oil prices and financial shortcomings. However, just a year later, CO2 emissions resurged back to their original levels and even beyond. The drop in emissions due to the coronavirus is six times greater than it was then. If these circumstances were to be replicated in the aftermath of corona, it would make the world’s ambitious 1.5 degree warming limit entirely unattainable.
Many people regard the climate crisis as a faraway, exaggerated threat, but what many people fail to recognize is the interconnectedness that is present. In the absence of any progressive measures, climate change has the potential to develop into an even greater economic and health threat than the virus ravaging so many lives. According to Bill Gates, “the loss of life and economic misery caused by this pandemic are on par with what will happen regularly if we do not eliminate the world’s carbon emissions”. In just two decades, climate change could develop into a crisis equally as deadly as the coronavirus, and by 2100, it is forewarned that its impacts will be five times as destructive. Although it may be seen as insensitive to shift the discussion away from the pandemic, many organizations- including the World Health Organization - have stated that the imperativeness of this crisis is crucial to prevent further pandemics and diseases from reaching human civilization and spreading. As temperatures keep rising, zones for equatorial diseases will become more frequent, especially as the natural range of species are altered in response to global warming. The World Health Organization estimates that if action is not taken now:
...between 2030 and 2050, climate change will kill an additional quarter of a million people a year through the spread of infectious diseases... An increasing risk of flooding, which can be brought about by more frequent extreme weather events, also means that outbreaks of waterborne diseases are also much more likely.... (Gavi 1)
A rise in emissions and temperature are nowadays dismantling the earth’s defense systems due to 'a catastrophic loss in biodiversity that... opens the gates for the spread of disease.” (Lustgarten 1).
Action is key to avoid a climate disaster and further pandemics from hitting the only habitable planet we have. The real question is whether the world is capable of recreating a functioning economy that is not hinged upon the destruction of our environment.
Sarah Dufays is a high school sophomore at American Heritage School in Plantation, FL.