COVID-19 and the environment

Due to confinement some countries have experienced a reduction in noise pollution ratios in some of their cities, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, thus also improving air quality. However, is this reduction only temporary, does it affect air quality and the spread of COVID-19, and what are the environmental impacts of COVID-19?

The impacts of the pandemic have been felt across the globe. Quoting the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, Inger Andersen: “The coronavirus pandemic, which has already caused devastation and unimaginable difficulties, has almost completely halted our lifestyle. The outbreak will have profound and lasting economic and social consequences in every corner of the planet.” While the halt in economic activity has led to an improvement in air quality, it has also led to an increase in medical and hazardous waste.

If we look at images from the Sentinel-5P satellite, they show that nitrogen dioxide air pollution levels have plummeted across Europe since the pandemic. NO2 is mostly emitted by the burning of fossil fuels at high temperatures, such as in internal combustion engines.

On the question of whether or not the reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will be temporary, some experts are sceptical.

According to Andersen, COVID-19 is not a promising development for the environment, as its effects on the environment are ultimately based on tragic human suffering and a drastic economic downturn. Joeri Rogelj, an expert on climate change and the environment at Imperial College London, warns even more emphatically that such a change is not sustainable. Others, such as Dominic Moran, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Edinburgh, are more optimistic.

If this crisis caused by the pandemic continues over a longer period of time, it will influence consumer behaviour, either because of its economic impact or because of environmental awareness. Any impact on demand will have a direct impact on the consumption of fossil fuels and thus on the global calculation of emissions.

It also appears that air quality and mortality from COVID-19 are related. Long-term exposure to air pollution increases susceptibility to more serious consequences of the virus. This is one of the conclusions drawn by a team of researchers at Harvard University.

“We found that an increase of only 1 μg/m3 in PM2.5 is associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate about 15%.” the team stated in its study.

These long-term PM2.5 values refer to microscopic particles in the air with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers. This type of particle is produced by the burning of fossil fuels and has already been linked to excessive rates of premature death from heart attacks, lung problems and cancer.

So until there is a vaccine and we see the response of governments to the severity of the pandemic, do we end up in a vicious circle of “lockdown – opening of the economy – increase in air pollution – increase in infection – lockdown again”?

References & Resources

  • CarbonBrief (19 Febrero 2020),  “Analysis: Coronavirus has temporarily reduced China’s CO2 emissions by a quarter.
  • United space in Europe (12 Marzo 2020), “Coronavirus: las emisiones de dióxido de nitrógeno caen en Italia“
  • ONU (7 Abril 2020), “La pandemia de coronavirus es una oportunidad para construir una economía que preserve la salud del planeta“
  • EarthArXiv Prepints (19 Abril 19 2020), “Lockdown caused by COVID-19 pandemic reduces air pollution in cities worldwide”
  • Harvard Universitiy (24 Abril 2020), “Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States: A nationwide cross-sectional study”

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