By Michelle Jung, Communications Editor
From falling global carbon emissions and clear water in the Venice canals to clean air in New Delhi, the coronavirus pandemic has been widely touted by media sources around the world as “good for the environment.” With widespread shutdowns in early April, daily global carbon emissions decreased by 17 percent compared to last year. However, later reports from June 11 showed that emissions were only down by 5 percent from last year. At first glance, this seems significant because the amount of carbon emissions is still below last year’s levels. However, it is important to keep in mind that the world has not fully returned to normal activity. The major decrease in daily carbon emissions really stems from a radical change in daily life due to the lockdown. Unfortunately, history has shown that these radical changes will not be long-lasting.
A professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia, Corinne Le Quéré, has explained that the world still has the same roads, industries, homes, and cars, which means that everything will return to what it originally was once restrictions are lifted. The situation is reflected by the financial crisis in 2007 and 2008, during which carbon emissions dropped but subsequently bounced back up. In fact, there are several indications that the carbon output could surge past pre-pandemic levels if we continue at this same rate.
MAKING UP FOR LOST TIME
China was one of the earliest nations to start reopening, as it was the first country to shut down due to the pandemic. Between February and March, manufacturing and transportation came to a halt causing a dramatic improvement in air quality.
However, pollution returned to — and at times even surpassed — pre-coronavirus levels in early May as factories have been pushing to make up for their lost time during the shutdown. Chinese provincial officials have also been given permission to construct new coal-fired power plants due to desperate calls to resolve economic struggles.
Since the start of 2019, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has been proposing plans to use the Amazon forest for commercial development. This work came to a halt after COVID-19 hit Brazil, but the pandemic did not stop the use of the Amazon forest as illegal loggers and miners are taking the opportunity to cut down large swaths of the area. The results were shocking as 64% more land was destroyed in April 2020 compared to the same point in 2019, which was considered the largest deforestation year in over a decade.
The director of science at IPAM Amazônia, Ane Alencar, has stated “You can do whatever you want in the Amazon and you won’t be punished.” For the officials, the pandemic is a “smokescreen, a distraction,” to allow the continuation of the destruction of the Amazon even during the pandemic.
INCREASED USE OF PLASTIC
As we continue our lives in lockdown and develop hyper-hygienic behaviors, the whole world has vastly depended on the use of plastic, the main component in gloves, masks, hand sanitizers, testing kits, takeout containers, and delivery packages.
Despite many nations promising to reduce the usage of plastic this year, the pandemic has set back some of those plans as people shift towards single-use plastics. Thailand started to ban disposable plastic bags in their major stores in January, but by April, Bangkok alone saw a 62% increase in the consumption of plastic compared to the last 12 months. In Singapore, where there are high penalties for littering, discarded masks are strewn all over sidewalks.
Cities are also struggling to handle the tremendous amount of infectious medical waste from hospitals and health facilities treating COVID-19 patients. Specifically, there are many cities that have exceeded the capacity of medical waste that they can effectively dispose of due to a lack of well-designed recycling systems. Instead, they rely on waste pickers to deal with the trash. On top of the significant increase in plastic waste, many workers are also locked down and prohibited from going to work, causing more plastic to end up in landfills and incinerators.
LESS MONEY FOR RENEWABLE ENERGY AND CLIMATE
As many states and cities are relying more on emergency funds, some of the funding for renewable energy and projects on climate resilience have been stripped away in response to the limited medical aid.
In the United States, there is a $1 billion fund for the National Disaster Resilience Competition which is a pool money set aside to make cities and states more active in climate resilient projects. The money in the fund is expected to be spent by the fall of 2022. However, shutdowns across the US have resulted in 600,000 climate resilience job losses since March. By the end of 2020, the wind industry predicts that 35,000 jobs could be lost, and solar industries predict that about half of its workforce will be laid off. Due to the shutdowns and loss of workers, it is inevitable that there will also be a slowdown in climate resilience and renewable energy projects.
The major concern is that the pandemic will leave a large dent in environmental projects as many small companies are not expected to survive, leaving a limited number of companies using climate resilient funds unless Congress provides an extension.
WHAT WILL THIS PANDEMIC TEACH US?
On the bright side, though, the whole world has seen an increase in the amount of time spent outdoors after cities across the globe have started to slowly reopen. As Elise Amel, psychology professor at the University of St. Thomas puts it, because many people have been spending more time at home, they may start to realize the amount of energy they are using and the amount of food waste they produce. People are starting to reflect on their actions and figure out ways to become more sustainable.
People have also started to find new hobbies that involve a greater immersion in nature, leading to hopes that many will realize the importance of protecting the environment. According to Matthew White, an environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter, it was found that there is a positive correlation between our exposure to nature and pro-environmental behaviors like managing an eco-friendly garden. Reports have also hinted towards a possible correlation between the “time spent in nature and sustainable behavior.”
Unfortunately, correlation does not equal causation, and many people would be more inclined to choose current happiness and convenience over protecting the global environment for the future. White stated that the positive connection between nature and sustainable behaviors was not held true after holiday traveling became a variable. In the research report “Green on the ground but not in the air,” spending more time in nature had no impact on our willingness to use air travel for self-interest activities like travelling for leisure and recreational purposes.
Even though many of us have been enjoying clearer skies, we have to keep in mind that these results appeared from our forced changed behavior in cutting the amount we drive and travel by air. Once everything re-opens and we can return to our daily lives, it is very likely that we will all jump back to our old behaviors as our pre-pandemic lives still hold as a foundation in your behaviors.
In the end “we could see long-lasting positive environmental change after the pandemic. But it’s all down to how we move on after lockdown.”