Post-COVID-19 reality: how the pandemic influenced the environment

author: Yelyzaveta Adamska  18-07-2020

Everyone has probably heard about the positive environmental changes brought about by the strict quarantine restrictions imposed in almost every country in the world: lots of media began to write about falling emissions and air and water pollution (all due to the impact of lockdown on industrial production and vehicle traffic); in mid-March, social media were abuzz with news that dolphins and swans were reportedly back in Venice’s empty canals. Let’s find out the real story behind this buzz.

Dolphins and swans in Venice

Let’s start by revealing the dolphins-in-Venice situation. These mammals were said to have appeared in the Venetian canals for the first time in sixty years.

The video, widely spread on social media, was actually shot in Cagliari (a port city in Sardinia, the centre of the Italian province of the same name, almost 900 kilometres from Venice). Yes, their appearance was due to the suspension of ferry services to the mainland, and of course, it’s lovely to see dolphins close to the waterfront, but they are not uncommon in the Mediterranean, and come to Sardinia much more often than “once in sixty years”.

As for the swans, they quite regularly appear in the canals of Burano, a small island in the greater Venice metropolitan area, where the photos were taken, long before the introduction of quarantine in Italy. [1].

There is only one indisputable fact in all this news about the “restoration” of nature: the water in the Venetian canals has really become cleaner - and now you can see fish in it, which was completely invisible in the muddy water.

The air becomes cleaner

Most of the world experienced the most dramatic restrictions since the second world war, many of which are still in place. Flights were cancelled all over the world. Most people practise social distancing and work remotely. All of these measures are aimed at controlling the spread of Covid-19. These changes caused a sudden drop in carbon emissions. In Europe, satellite images show that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions over northern Italy and Spain have become much lower [2]. In Paris, the air became as clean as it was 40 years ago. “We compared satellite photos before and after the closure of the borders and saw that air quality in Europe has changed significantly. Air pollution has decreased quite noticeably. We think the reason for this is less transport,” explained Zoltan Massai-Kosubek, the Head of the European Public Health Alliance on air quality [4].

The improvement in air quality over the last month of the coronavirus lockdown has led to 11,000 fewer deaths from pollution in the UK, and elsewhere in Europe, a study has revealed.

Sharp falls in road traffic and industrial emissions have also resulted in 1.3 million fewer days of work absence, 6,000 fewer children developing asthma, 1,900 avoided emergency room visits, and 600 fewer preterm births, according to the Finnish Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

They found out that nitrogen dioxide levels have fallen by 40% while tiny particulate matter – known as PM2.5 – is down 10%. These two forms of pollution, which weaken the heart and respiratory system, are usually responsible for about 470,000 deaths in Europe each year. “This effect arose on the background of a drop in energy production from coal by 37% and a decrease in oil consumption by about one third. Coal and oil combustion remain the main source of nitric oxide pollution in Europe,” the organisation said in its report.

Of course, these achievements will not be long-lasting. When flights resume, enterprises go back to work, and traffic returns to the streets, everything will most likely return to square one.

The coronavirus crisis has changed the agenda: we are no longer talking about the environment

Before the coronavirus crisis, the climate movement was gaining strength. Social movements, such as “Fridays for Future”, were in the spotlight of the media, but with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, this media buzz suddenly stopped. We have almost forgotten about fires in Australia, in the forests of the Amazon or California, we have forgotten how fast our own Carpathians go bald.

However, it makes sense: in the midst of an inevitable and terrible problem with tangible consequences that threaten each of us, no one wants to hear about such “distant” issues as climate change. In the context of the crisis we are experiencing today, the future crises immediately seem less significant. However, one should not hope that when the pandemic goes away, everything will return to normal. It is more likely that states will take care of their “survival” in the context of the global economic crisis, and that the environmental agenda will play a secondary role.

Revenge of plastic

A truly historically important legacy of the pandemic may be a rethinking of the attitude towards waste in general and the use of plastic in particular. There are all the prerequisites for recognising the generally accepted fact that the reduction in the use of disposable tableware and bags, as well as other plastic products, has significantly contributed to the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The situation with masks, gloves, napkins, and paramedics in a pandemic world indicates the most apparent impossibility of giving up disposable items. Repeated use of these items radically increases the risk of infection, the use of alternative plastic materials increases the load on production. Disposal of medical waste requires a separate protocol, and the conditions of the epidemic do not allow separate garbage collection and require maximum enforcement.

This year, new restrictions on the use of plastic were to come into force in a number of Western countries: for example, France and the United Kingdom planned to ban disposable plastic utensils, and the European Union as a whole planned to reduce the use of plastic containers.

The scale of the current pandemic will probably force to reconsider these legislative decisions and, in general, the role of plastic, the impact of which on the bacterial and viral safety of society has long been known. Back in 2012, a study was conducted in which it was revealed that the ban on the use of disposable plastic bags increased the number of diseases by 25%.

Researchers from the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University have indicated that reusable packages contain bacteria in 99% of cases and can pose a health risk to consumers [6]. In March of this year, scientists from leading American research centres published an open letter stating that viruses and bacteria can be stored in reusable bags for up to nine days [7].

Thus, in today’s reality, the use of plastic becomes indispensable, both for hygienic purposes and (which is truly paradoxical) environmental. Considering the proliferation of food delivery during the quarantine period, the use of plastic has no alternatives. It is difficult to imagine the scale and consequences of a pandemic in large cities in the conditions of the shutdown of the production of such utensils.

The ecological renaissance can take place in two ways – either by the destruction of civilisation, as in Chernobyl (we have to do everything possible to prevent this scenario), or by its triumph, as in London, which a century and a half ago was drowned in harmful emissions. Today, despite the large population, machines, and industries, life in the British capital is environmentally safer than even in those countries where the subsistence economy dominates. Therefore, it seems rational to revise the existing doctrines of resource use in order to achieve a secure future in the long run.

 [1] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/03/coronavirus-pandemic-fake-animal-viral-social-media-posts/?fbclid=IwAR16UwC9K2H-rV8aXks0YkCOG3YeodzRhNRHQZcYv43kvxozNVFMDttXxBU

[2] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/03/coronavirus-pandemic-fake-animal-viral-social-media-posts/?fbclid=IwAR16UwC9K2H-rV8aXks0YkCOG3YeodzRhNRHQZcYv43kvxozNVFMDttXxBU

[3] https://aqicn.org/map/paris/

[4] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-air-pollution/coronavirus-lockdowns-give-europes-cities-cleaner-air-idUSKBN21G0XA

[5] https://energyandcleanair.org/air-pollution-deaths-avoided-in-europe-as-coal-oil-plummet/

[6] https://murrieta.lluh.org/aggregator/sources/1-800-782-2623?page=2&rsource=murrieta.lomalindahealth.org/aggregator/sources/1-800-782-2623

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/26/climate/plastic-bag-ban-virus.html 

Yelyzaveta Adamska
Yelyzaveta Adamska