In mid-March, prior to the announcement of lockdown in the UK, Change Agents UK published a blog post that speculated on the potential environmental impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, both positive and negative. This explored the potential effect of many changes on national and global carbon emissions, such as the normalisation of remote-working practices, and the vast reduction in air travel.
Four months on (the longest third of a year on record), we want to re-examine the impact of the pandemic on various environmental systems, now that more data is available and concrete impacts can be seen.
Environmental Benefits of Lockdown
As predicted, decreases in carbon emissions were seen both nationally and globally. By early April, global carbon emissions had declined by 17% compared to the same period in 2019, the sharpest drop in carbon output since records began (1). In the UK, the impact on carbon emissions was proportionally greater, with a 31% decrease in carbon output compared to 2019 (1).
Other measurable benefits include an improvement in air pollution levels in busy city streets. The annual legal limit for Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is 40 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3). Hope Street in Glasgow, consistently one of the most polluted streets in Scotland, fell from 56.6 to 18.7 µg/m3. In London too, NO2 levels were seen to almost halve in heavily congested areas such as Oxford Street and Marylebone Road (3). This decline in Nitrous oxide pollutants correlates strongly with declines in particulate matter pollutants (PM10 and PM2.5) (4). Air pollution can, in the short term, irritate the eyes and throat, trigger asthma attacks, cause headaches and nausea, and even cause pneumonia and bronchitis. In the long term, exposure to air pollution can result in a vast range of cardio-pulmonary diseases, and damage many other organs including the brain (5). It is thought that even a short-term decline in these pollutants will reduce the number of early deaths associated with air pollution (4).
Other environmental benefits of the global lock down have been noticed. Fish stocks are projected to potentially improve due to disruption in the supply chain as well as a global decline in demand (6). Reported rates in roadkill also declined by up to 56% between March and April in many states across America due to the reduction in traffic. These, and many other examples, may seem to be relatively insignificant, but the net benefit to global ecology is still important.
However, as expected in our initial blog post on the topic, the environmental impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have not all been beneficial.
Unfortunately, although there was a marked drop in global emissions, atmospheric CO2 levels still rose to a new peak of 417.2ppm in May, up from a peak of 414.8 in May 2019 (see Graph below) (7, 8). This increase was only 0.4ppm lower than predicted, despite the dramatic lockdown measures in place (9). Scientists predict that the average decline in emissions across the whole year will only be between 4-7% (7). Any noticeable impact on atmospheric CO2 levels would require a sustained suppression of emissions by at least 10% for at least a whole year (10). The economic difficulties that have arisen due to maintaining lockdown for only three or four months indicate the potential hurdles that we face in any attempt to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions and alter the trajectory of climate change.
(Red Line: Monthly mean values of atmospheric CO2. Black line: Monthly mean values after correcting for seasonal variation. Source: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Another potentially unforeseen outcome of the response to coronavirus is a long-term decrease in public transport use. As lock-down is gradually lifted and people are able to travel to city centre shops, pubs and restaurants, the government is still advising against the use of public transport unless strictly necessary (11). This is due to the increased risk of spreading the virus on buses and trains, compared to personal car use. Even though mandatory face coverings and social distancing reduce this risk, many people have become apprehensive about using public transport, a trend which could continue even as lockdown slowly lifts (12, 13). The impacts of this could include a long-term reduction in the use of public transport, as peoples habits change, and therefore a potential increase in transport-related emissions (13).
Perhaps the most unexpected impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been seen in areas of tropical rainforest. Satellite data found that rainforest deforestation rose by 150% in March 2020 compared to the average for March from 2017-2019, in countries across the globe including Indonesia, The Democratic Republic of Congo, and Brazil (14). The reasons behind this are twofold. Firstly, lockdown measures have prevented authorities from being able to patrol nature reserves, allowing illegal logging to go on unimpeded (14, 15). Secondly, the pandemic has led to massive job losses across the world, and supressed the tourist industry, leaving many people without their usual source of income. As a result, many people are turning to exploitation of their local natural resources (through illegal logging, hunting, or establishing crops on preserved forest land) to support themselves and their families (14). The socio-economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic has therefore had significant environmental knock-on effects.
In late March, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the United States suspended its enforcement of some environmental laws during the outbreak. Routine monitoring and reporting of pollution by companies is no longer expected, and penalties will not be imposed on those breaking environmental rules (16). The justification given for this is that the Covid-19 pandemic has made it more challenging for businesses to simultaneously protect their workers and the public while also following clean air and water regulations. This could severely impact communities living near industrial facilities, which are predominantly poor, marginalised and ethnic minority groups (16,17). Air pollution damages the lungs, exposing these vulnerable communities (which are already at greater risk of dying from Covid-19) at an elevated risk of complications due to coronavirus, which also attacks the respiratory system (16, 18). Therefore, the relaxation of environmental standards and laws during this pandemic is not only an environmental issue, but also a social and public health issue.
Although this example comes from the United States rather than the UK, there are remarkably similar public health patterns here. The worst levels of air pollution in the UK are experienced by the poorest 10% of the population, while the average Black or Black British person in the UK is more than twice as likely to live in the most income-deprived areas, and is exposed to 28% more particulate matter air pollution, than the average urban White person (19, 20). This is one of the factors that has led to Black/Black British people being over four times more likely to die from coronavirus compared to White people, with all other ethnic minorities at elevated risk too (21). Covid-19 has starkly highlighted the social and environmental injustice that still remains in the UK, and the potentially fatal consequences of this inequality. Greater action has to be taken, following this crisis, to recognise and effectively address the racial nature of environmental injustice.
What does this tell us?
The longer-term socio-economic and environmental impacts that we are seeing emerge as a result of coronavirus, both directly and indirectly, can teach us much about the next steps we must take towards sustainability and addressing the climate crisis. Firstly, even with the near cessation of personal transport in some of the most polluting countries, and a shut-down of large amounts of industry, the impact on carbon emissions was so slight that global atmospheric carbon concentrations still peaked in May. This indicates that it is not the individual’s daily commute or annual holiday that is pushing us towards the climate crisis. We need to recognise that the impetus and responsibility clearly rests with the biggest players, such as the fossil-fuel energy industry and unsustainable agriculture practices. In particular, the government has a particular responsibility to create and enact legislation that enforces the change necessary. We have seen during this health crisis that the government is able to swiftly enact drastic legislation and make funding available for the sectors and organisations that require it. If this energy were directed towards the climate crisis, much more progress could be made.
Individual actions do still have an important role to play in the shift towards sustainability, and decreasing the pollution in our towns and cities (especially in the most vulnerable neighbourhoods) is still a worthy reason to champion alternative means of transport and goods production. However, the coronavirus crisis has indicated that even having half of the world’s population in enforced lockdown (and the most polluting half, at that) has not been enough to make meaningful progress towards halting climate change. As we hopefully begin to emerge from this crisis, concrete steps must be made towards large-scale divestment in fossil fuels and decarbonisation of the energy industry through investment in renewable technology.