While the prospect of starting a new decade was exciting for many, 2020 proved to be a year where humanity faced monumental challenges and felt a collective despair.
From the year’s beginning, Australia went from one disaster to another. The flames were barely extinguished on a catastrophic bushfire season before a nationwide lockdown was enforced in response to the growing coronavirus outbreak. While the Bushfire Royal Commission Report indisputably linked the devastating fire season to extreme weather patterns caused by climate breakdown, many wondered whether global lockdowns would have a positive impact on global warming and the natural environment with entire countries sedentary for months.
We hit the books (ok, the internet) to find out what restrictions in public movement, closed borders, reduced transport and halted non-essential services meant for the planet and its climate. Here’s what we found.
AIR POLLUTION HAS DROPPED SIGNIFICANTLY
With global restrictions in place, many harmful pollutants linked to human activity have plummeted. Data released by NASA and ESA indicated that in coronavirus epicentres such as Wuhan, USA, Spain and Italy, pollution decreased by up to 30% during lockdown periods. Rather than being the result of housebound individuals, the majority of this drop is attributed to a reduction in demand on industrial facilities, power plants and transport by air, road and railway. While cleaner air can have significant health benefits for citizens, it’s likely the usual pollution levels will resume as countries return to normal activities, therefore having a negligible impact on the Paris agreement.
It’s also critical to remember how air pollution levels affect low-income families and communities of colour the most. The fossil fuel economy doesn’t just destabilise our climate for everyone; all too often it exposes the most vulnerable among us to pollutants that put them in danger of everything from respiratory issues to greater risk of cancer.
THE PLANET HAS BOTH RECOVERED AND SUFFERED
When it comes to our natural environment, the effects of the pandemic can be argued on both sides. On one hand, nature has benefited with fewer cars and people about. There have been reports far and wide of immaculate landscapes and animals taking over cities without (those pesky) humans around. Reduced tourism in sensitive areas may also improve breeding success for birds and mammals, though this is yet to be seen. Noise pollution, which causes major discomfort to many of earth’s creatures has significantly dropped; in particular the absence of ocean cruises has meant less stress for aquatic creatures, albeit only temporarily.
On the flip side, the pandemic has seen a lack of environmental monitoring and enforcement of regulation, with less wildlife crime being detected. A reduction in tourism also means a reduction in income, which many countries rely upon for protection of the natural environment. Only time will tell what the long term environmental effects of this break in income will be. Furthermore, the global trend towards reusable products has been stopped in its tracks, with many hospitality businesses reverting to single use packaging for health and sanitary reasons. An increase in medical waste and disposable PPE will also have detrimental effects on the environment, with much ending up in landfill, or even worse, polluting our streets and waterways.
CLIMATE CHANGE IS UNLIKELY TO BE MITIGATED BY THE PANDEMIC
Greenhouse gas emissions have fallen in the short term and will probably end up lower than what was forecast for the year. While this dip is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, it could prove detrimental to the conversation around the climate crisis, giving adversaries the chance to argue that urgent climate action is less pressing. In actual fact, this study found that even if lockdown were to continue for two years, the global temperature would only be 0.01 degrees lower than it would’ve been without the pandemic. In other words, not enough to save us from catastrophe. From a policy stance, environmental and climate issues have taken a backseat as pandemic related discussion consumed all political bandwidth this year. This could prove disastrous in the ongoing fight to save the planet.
OUR PATH TO RECOVERY IS PARAMOUNT
“The real lesson of this pandemic is that we must globally shift our energy production away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible if we are to ensure sustained year-on-year cuts to our global emissions. The good news is that this will help to maintain the clean air and clear skies we have all rediscovered during lockdown, saving many lives.” - Mark Maslin, professor of climatology at University College London.
Regardless of the positive and negative impacts the pandemic has had on the climate and planet, what’s most important is where we go from here. To even have a chance to meet the targets set out in the Paris Agreement, our government must tilt our recovery away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy and more stringent environmental policies. Investing in a green recovery is the only way forward because as we are seeing, any environmental benefits resulting from the pandemic will only prove temporary unless long term measures are implemented.
WHAT CAN YOU DO AS AN INDIVIDUAL?
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless, particularly in this uncertain climate we find ourselves in. While transitioning from fossil fuels takes action from governments and industry leaders (ScoMo, we’re looking at you!), there are some things you can do to help:
Collectively we must keep fighting for action. Attend rallies, approach politicians, sign petitions, be loud!
Support local businesses. Not only will it prevent huge emissions on freight, you’re helping someone just like you make a living. Bonus points if you support ethical and sustainable local businesses.
Avoid single use. Buy a reusable mask, eat/drink in instead of taking away, find cafes that still accept keep cups (hello, that’s us!).
Plant trees, plant anything! Gardening has a myriad of benefits for your mental health and the environment. Not only is it super satisfying to nurture your own garden (even more so if you’re growing your own food), but plants literally eat CO2.
Make small lifestyle changes. Eat less meat, take public transport or ride a bike, start composting, buy plastic free from markets and bulk food stores. Every little bit makes a difference.
We all have a part to play in our post-pandemic recovery for ourselves, our communities and for mother nature. At the risk of sounding like every pandemic related advertisement ever, we really are in it together. Let’s get to work.
RESOURCES:The Environmental Impacts of the Coronavirus
Current and future global climate impacts resulting from COVID-19
What impact will COVID-19 have on the environment?
With Corona Outbreak: Nature Started Hitting the Reset Button Globally
Covid-19 economic rescue plans must be green, say environmentalists