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COVID and Climate: A Tale of Two Crises

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

Was the pandemic's impact on the climate positive or negative?

COVID Skies by Meghna Gupta

The unprecedented Covid-19 crisis has impacted millions of people worldwide, taking the lives of many and inflicting terrible suffering. Unfortunately, this is believed to be only one of the many pandemics that will occur in the coming years. As research shows, our exposure to diseases similar to COVID-19 is increasing because of the impacts industrial activities have on ecosystems. The loss of habitat through deforestation, for example, forces animals to migrate and come into contact with humans, more likely spreading germs.

During the interruption of several industries, nature temporarily regained its strengths and showed us that systemic changes within our industrial systems are needed to ensure the future safety of our population and the environment.

Impact of the Pandemic on Industries

The multiple lockdowns have altered our living and consumption patterns, mostly affecting the surface transport, power, and industry sectors. These three sectors accounted for 86% of the total reduction in global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2019-2020, and daily global CO2 emissions fell by 17% as of April 2020. Shockingly enough, these levels were comparable to the emission levels of 2006.

This phenomenon was mainly due to a drop in global energy demand from reduced mobility and consumption. The International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that the unparalleled contractions in economic activity and mobility during the first quarter of 2020 have reduced global energy demand by 3.8% relative to the first quarter of 2019. Ultimately, the closure of many shops limited production processes, making coal the hardest-hit energy source. In fact, its demand was pushed down by almost 8%. Global oil demand also decreased by nearly 5%, mainly due to restrictions on travel and shipping.

How has this Change Affected the Environment?

Air Quality

The dramatic changes in the flow of goods have negatively impacted economies, but the emergence of positive effects on the environment cannot go unnoticed. Air quality has improved in many parts of the world, including in very hard-hit areas such as Wuhan and cities in the USA and northern Italy. The quality of air in China improved up to 11.4% relative to the start of 2019, and the World Health Organization has astonishingly stated that this saved up to 50,000 lives in the country. Moreover, during the lockdown in India from March to April 2020, there was a 60% reduction in the particulate matter P.M 2.5 in the city of Delhi, a heavily air-polluted city.

A significant drop in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – a toxic gas emitted from engines – was also identified in numerous countries, and data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite shows that NO2 concentrations were reduced by 45%-50% in many European cities.

Overall, factors that decreased global air pollution have been the reduction in transportation and industry production from lower demand and interrupted supply chains.

Water Quality

Water quality and marine life in many rivers and other water bodies have also seen improvements. An example is the majestic Ganga river in India –one of the most polluted rivers in the world – which has experienced a 40-50% improvement in its water quality. The Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee reported that the river’s water became fit for drinking again after decades. Similarly, many people and scientists claim that the water in Venice, Italy, became clearer after two months of lockdown, making aquatic life visible again.

Concerning marine life, the stress hormone levels in many aquatic creatures have lowered, largely due to a decrease in noise from nautical traffic.

Generally speaking, water quality and marine life have benefitted from reduced discharges of industrial wastes, shipping traffic, noise pollution, overfishing, and tourism, temporarily allowing marine ecosystems to replenish themselves.

Future Prospects

Although global pollutant emissions faced a record percentage decline during the pandemic, the end of 2020 was accompanied by a discouraging rebound. Industrial nations including the USA, China, and Brazil returned to their pre-pandemic emission levels, if not drastically higher. Sadly, this shows that key governments did not grasp the opportunity of buying time to mitigate the climate crisis.

It is worth mentioning that it would be unrealistic to suggest that we adapt to such low production levels, as this would be economically harmful to the livelihoods of many. Rather, we should turn to eco-efficient production that would not exploit resources and emit toxic waste. Relevant policy makers, especially in highly pollutant emitting countries like USA and China, therefore need to implement adequate guidelines for the proper conservation of the environment.

What we can do is focus on small but impactful changes within our population. These changes can be in how nature is perceived, but also in our transportation and consumption patterns. Are so many plane trips needed to go on an enjoyable vacation? Do we really need to buy so many clothes? Are there more sustainable options available?

To conclude, this pandemic has disarrayed society to the core, and we need to realize how closely environmental degradation is interlinked with our exposure to future viruses. Ultimately, sustainability is the key to our resilience against future pandemics. Let us not underestimate that.


Coronavirus, Climate Change, and the Environment: A Conversation on COVID-19 with Dr. Aaron

Bernstein, Director of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE. (2021). Harvard Chan C-Change.

Hulac, B. J. (2021). Yes, the pandemic crushed carbon emissions. Now they’re back.

IEA, (2020). Global Energy Review 2020: The impacts of the Covid-19 crisis on global energy

demand and CO2 emissions. IEA.

Khan, I., Shah, D., Shah, S. S. (2020). COVID-19 pandemic and its positive impacts on

the environment: an updated review. International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, 18, 521-530.

Le Quéré, C. et al (2020). Temporary reduction in global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19

forced confinement. Nature Climate Change, 10, 647-653.

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