Climate Crises in the Time of a Pandemic: Update

By: Lindsey Brown

A few months ago in April, Helena Wolenski wrote an eye-opening piece highlighting the environmental impacts we have witnessed as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic this year. Some of these impacts include a decrease in carbon dioxide and fossil fuel emissions in many of the largest emitting countries , including China, the United States, India and the European Union (E.U.). However, as Helena pointed out, emissions following an economic or public health crisis have a precedent of reaching even greater levels when the economy returns to more normal behaviors. In the months following the start of the pandemic, we have witnessed even more devastating environmental impacts that may have a greater effect on the future of the environment and our public health. 

Some key examples of these environmental impacts can be seen in countries such as China and nations of the E.U.. The Hubei province in China has experienced massive reductions in carbon emissions through the mandated social distancing practices throughout their industrial facilities and power plants. The decreases seen in February and March were extended to 25 percent throughout the summer. Similarly, the E.U. has experienced falls in air pollution as mandated stay-at-home orders reduced car travel through many countries. Global carbon emissions from transportation had reduced drastically in the first few months of the year and have continued to diminish. 

While the decline in carbon emissions has been a clear example of the impact COVID-19 has had on the environment, there are other greater concerns. With mandated stay-at-home orders, people are producing more waste in their homes. In a similar vein, increased time at home has prompted an explosive increase in Amazon package orders and deliveries. Mandated at-home activities led many people to order products such as bicycles, exercise equipment and home education tools. Other industries have seen a fall in demand for their goods and services; in fact, the beauty industry has seen growth in skin care product sales, but falling lipstick and blush sales.

The concern for rebounding environmental degradation is one that has already started to unroll in countries such as the United States and China. The forced closure of factories, power plants and industrial facilities has sparked a rush to make up for lost time. Emissions have spiked at rates even greater than original rates as the Chinese economy has begun to recover. National Geographic additionally points out that some polluters in the United States have grown desperate and are scrambling for an advantage during these uncertain times. The federal government has provided aid to industries that produce things such as automobiles, plastics, airlines and fossil fuels to encourage economic stimulation by providing cash flows to their businesses. There’s a growing concern that the biggest polluters in the United States will emerge more profitable and more brazen than pre-COVID-19 conditions. 

The environmental impacts of COVID-19 are yet to be determined as solely positive or negative, as it tends to be with most complicated and multifaceted issues. The primary decreases we saw in emissions in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic may be offset from the direct consequences of stay-at-home mandates; however, further politics of the fossil fuel industry may cause more damage than there was last year. The complete understanding of the environmental impact of COVID-19 won’t be seen until following years of study. This delay will be beneficial to understanding the holistic effects of this pandemic in the long run.

Cover photo courtesy of Pixabay

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