The time to act is now: Covid-19 and its effect on the environment

  • 28 September 2020
  • Environment
  • Alana Cullen

National lockdowns helped prevent the spread of Covid-19, and one unexpected side effect of such was a window into the restorative nature of our environment. Whist humans were indoors, global carbon levels dropped by 17%, noise pollution decreased, insect populations increased, and bat sightings soared. 

This environmental optimism came through strongly at events held the Foundation for Science and Technology during lockdown – we dedicated May as our “Environment Month”, publishing multiple blogs on how Covid-19 could help counter climate change, and hosted an event on the effect of Covid-19 on the environment. At this event the panel were overall optimistic that the Covid-19 crisis would provide a stimulus for green recovery. However, despite these initial silver linings of the pandemic emerging in the spring, as autumn comes, this optimism is now dwindling, with evidence that Covid-19 is having an increasingly detrimental effect on the environment. 

Investment in dirty fuels 

Despite hopes for investment into a “greener” economy, the economic fallout of Covid-19 has pushed countries in the other direction, towards reinvesting in fossil fuels. China, the first country to go into lockdown, has now pushed for economic recovery through construction, giving fossil fuel power plants the green light. China permitted more new coal powerplants in March 2020 than it did in the year 2019. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have stated that this push for fossil fuels in China could “single-handedly” undermine the reductions in coal power that are necessary to keep warming below 2C.  It is not clear how this new build of fossil fuel power plants matches up to the announcement by President Xi at the UN General Assembly last week that China will be Carbon neutral by 2060 with peak emissions before 2030.

The US is also attempting to limit economic damage through investing in fossil fuel industries. Some of the biggest names - ExxonMobil, Chevron and Conoco - are together eligible for $19.4 billion from the US Covid-19 stimulus funding. These established industries may offer faster returns initially, but they will cause even further damage in the long term; 8% of deaths in the world are already contributed to by air pollution according to the World Health Organisation. This figure will only increase unless we dedicate stimulus funding to green recovery, not fossil fuels. 

Environmentally unfriendly infrastructures

The way people get to work has changed. Whereas before public transport was the norm in London, TFL predicts a 10- fold increase in cycling as a result of the pandemic. This is a move in the right direction for green transport, however the effects of cycling may be countered by the increased use of cars to travel to work, rather than using public transport. This rise in vehicles saw carbon emissions shoot up post-lockdown, despite the initial hope of lowered emissions. But it isn’t all doom and gloom – one small victory for the green revolution is the planned pulling forward of the banning of new fossil fuel vehicles from 2040 to 2030, which will pave the way for greater electrification of the automobile industry. 

Working from home certainly helps cut down on carbon emissions with regards to transport, but as the nights draw in and we use more power in our homes, working from home will become a drain on our energy systems.  Sussex University found that working from home over the winter could increase personal emissions by 80%, potentially cancelling out other gains made by reducing transport. In order to counter this the UK needs to invest in greener homes; it can be as simple as changing your energy provider to one that uses renewable energy, or a green tariff. On a larger scale we must replace gas boilers with greener options such as heat pumps and solar panels.

A plastic pandemic 

During April there was a marked reduction in litter on beaches, but now as the use of single use plastics has increased, a plastic pandemic plagues the oceans. There are reports of masks, gloves and disposable cups littered on beaches, streets and harbours. This coronavirus waste ends up in the ocean and will not biodegrade for over 450 years. Masks are seen to be “floating like jellyfish” which could cause animals to choke, become entangled or eat, filling up their stomachs, and providing no nutrients. In order to prevent this, we need clear guidance on how to dispose of masks and recycle them, as well as investment in reusable masks.

Alongside the increase in single use plastics, there has also been a reduction in recycling. In the UK 26% of local authorities reported disruption to recycling during April, a figure that had reduced to 18% by late July. Other European countries such as Italy have also had a reduction in their sustainable waste management, in fears infected residents would help spread the virus. Some coffee shops have also stopped accepting reusable cups, and instead will only administer take-away coffee cups, few of which will be recycled. Other shops and delivery companies have increased plastic packaging. It is important to recognise that plastic is no better at being hygienic than other environmentally friendly alternatives such as glass or cardboard; a switch is possible that benefits both the environment and health. While Covid is on people’s minds, it appears the environment will take a back seat. 

The turning point

The climate crisis will be won or lost with Covid-19. Lockdown was never a sustainable way of changing the course of climate change, but it does demonstrate the impact that changes to industry and lifestyle could have on the environment, and how it has the potential to recover. Not only are changes important for the course of climate change, but also to the next pandemic – from the wildlife trade to deforestation, these risky activities increase the chance of zoonoses transmitting from animals to humans.  Now isn’t the time to pick up old habits, but the chance to invest in new, sustainable, and healthier practices. 

Alana Cullen is a MSc student at Imperial College London studying Science Communication, and is the Social Media and Communication's Officer for the Foundation for Science and Technology.