The Unintended Environmental Side-Effects of COVID-19

Life as we know it has largely been put on pause in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. With entire populations ordered to stay at home, this has inflicted substantial economic and social shocks globally. It has also had a profound impact on the environment. Carbon emissions have fallen sharply during lockdown and it seems like the natural world has benefitted from our absence. But not all changes and decisions made in response to the COVID-19 crisis have been ‘good’ for the environment. And as countries start to ease lockdown measures, how long will the positive environmental changes continue? Here are a few of the unintended – both positive and negative – side-effects of Coronavirus on the environment.

Positive Environmental Impacts of Coronavirus

  • The reduction of road activity in the UK since the country went into lockdown has led to a significant drop in air pollution levels. Some UK cities across have recorded a reduction in levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – a serious air pollutant that is released from car exhausts – of up to 60%, compared with the same period last year.

  • Cleaner air has also been one of the positive environmental effects of the Indian lockdown. Citizens in Northern India have been able to see the Himalayan mountain range for the first time in their lives, as skies are clearing of pollution.

  • It’s not just the air that has benefitted from the Coronavirus shutdown. The water in Venice’s often murky canals have become clearer, with fish visible in the water. The absence of tourists and boat traffic in the city’s famous canals appears to have improved water clarity and quality.

  • Animals are taking advantage of our widespread absence from streets and cities to go exploring. A herd of mountain goats have climbed down from the Great Orme cliffs to roam the Welsh town of Llandudno; whilst a herd of fallow deer have been grazing in the residential streets of Harold Hill in East London. Elsewhere, boars have been spotted along the normally bustling avenues in Barcelona. In North America, the absence of humans’ presence seems to have also attracted marine wildlife with locals spotting Orcas in Vancouver fjord for the first time in decades.

  • It is thought that wildflowers could bloom in their greatest number for years throughout this summer in the UK. According to conservation charity Plantlife, the cut-back on mowing during the lockdown benefits wild plants and the bees, butterflies, birds and bugs that depend on them for survival.

  • The International Energy Agency is forecasting a 6% in global energy demand this year – the largest drop on record. Coronavirus has already had an immediate impact on fossil fuel commodities with the collapse of oil market prices. On the other hand, the renewables industry is set to experience some sort of growth regardless of the state of the economy. It may therefore be one of the industries most resilient to the COVID-19 crisis. Hopefully the growth in renewables will spur fossil fuel companies towards clean energy.

Negative environmental impacts of Coronavirus

  • The impacts of COVID-19 have completely disrupted the global food system. Estimates suggest food waste has increased significantly. Many farmers have had to abandon crops and dairy mid-production due to reduced demand. Furthermore, many cold storage facilities in the UK are now at full capacity storing frozen meats, vegetables and meals, which no longer can be outsourced to restaurants and mass caterers.
  • Whilst many animal species on the planet have had a chance to thrive during the global lockdown, conservationists express concern over the number of endangered species who are falling prey to a surge in illegal hunting. African rhinos, giant ibises in Asia and South American big cats are among the species targeted whilst tourism has been reduced to virtually zero.
  • The US government has weakened environmental protections amid the pandemic with knock-on effects to the natural world. For example, regulations surrounding fuel-efficiency for new cars have been scrapped along with rules on air pollution. President Trump has allowed companies to break pollution laws in order to put human health first. Not only is this ironic, but also concerning in that there is no end date for dropping this enforcement.
  • And the same prioritisation could also extend to brand level. Many businesses have been impacted by the pandemic, including retail brands who have had to close down their outlets. During such economically pressured times, retailers across all sectors will feel the pressure to cut costs, often meaning sustainability can get put on the back-burner.