Written by: Lillian Connors
COVID 19 caused a huge health crisis over the world, and it’s still ongoing. The pandemic also crippled the world’s economy as thousands of businesses shut down. And although society is starting to flicker back to normal, there is still a cloud of uncertainty even though vaccines are now being introduced.
How COVID 19 affected health, social and economic sectors is well documented and can be observed directly. On the other hand, studying how the pandemic affected the natural environment is trickier and more complex, considering such effects manifest gradually.
However, as the pandemic wears on, scientists are now beginning to see the surprising dynamics and relationship between the pandemic and our planet.
Effects of the coronavirus pandemic
The massive reduction of human activity all over the world resulted in several effects on the climate and the environment.
Let’s check out some of them.
Drop-in air pollution
The latest information on COVID 19 states that the SARS COV 2 virus stays on surfaces for quite some time, ranging from several hours to several days. The longevity of the virus coupled with the easy mode of transmission caused a considerable decline in human travel.
One way of containing the virus is to restrict or even ban non-essential travel. With aircraft, cruise ships, buses, and cars ground to a standstill, there is a noticeable drop in air pollution.
In Jalandhar, North India, for example, a vast stretch of the Himalayas can be clearly seen again. It’s a refreshing sight considering that the mountain scenery has been cloaked by smog for years.
Since airports are closed and flights are at a standstill, the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air also reported that the travel bans in China have resulted in a 25% reduction of carbon emissions. In another research by Carbon Brief, global emissions could fall back 5.5% less than 2019 levels.
However, the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that these reductions in carbon emissions may not be forever. When the travel lanes open again, carbon emissions will most likely increase to their previous levels.
Zeke Hausfather, Breakthrough Institute director of climate and energy, explains that reduction of global emissions generally happens during recessions but usually bounces back once the crisis abates.
There may be avenues for a more sustained impact though, and these avenues may come from societal shifts. For example, remote work policies, telecommuting, and the use of virtual conferences reduce actual physical commuting to the office. This diminishes the number of cars on the road, fuel usage, and carbon emission.
Drop-in cost of fuel prices
With empty freeways, shipping lanes, and air traffic, the cost of fuel drastically dropped. According to Kevin Gurney, a climate scientist at Northern Arizona University, gas usage, and prices fell by a massive 50% during a two week period in March.
Electricity use, however, only declined slightly. Gurney says that the use of electricity isn’t going down but just redirected. Rather than powering up commercial buildings and business establishments, more electricity has been redirected towards homes. Houses don’t use as much electricity as do businesses, which may be the cause of the decline.
Generating electricity still causes pollution. However, scientists believe that the degree of pollution depends on the economic structure of the country. For example, the US and European countries delegated a lot of their product manufacturing offshore while transitioning to become service-oriented economies.
With less power-guzzling factories, Western countries produce far less air pollution than major manufacturing countries such as China. China, on the other hand, requires enormous amounts of energy to keep factories running, and the fuel required to run the power plants releases millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The lack of air pollution warmed the planet a little
Strangely, the reduction of pollution caused a slight increase in global temperature. Researchers from the Goethe University of Frankfurt and the University of Washington analyzed a phenomenon called cloud brightening.
Sulfate particles from the smokestacks of ships rise into the atmosphere. The particles attract water vapor in the cloud, making it brighter. Brighter clouds then reflect sunlight back into space.
Studying the brightened clouds on a shipping lane in the South Atlantic Ocean, they measured the amount of solar energy directly over the shipping lane and outside of it. In their studies, brightened clouds block around 2 watts of solar power from reaching the ocean.
On a global scale, the scientists theorize that a little air pollution does help keep the planet cool by reflecting the sun’s heat and radiation.
With the reduction of air pollution brought about by the grinding of transportation during the COVID pandemic, more sunlight and radiation penetrates the atmosphere, and that energy is trapped in the ocean. Researchers predict that on a global scale, polluted clouds block around 1 watt of solar power per square meter.
Deforestation and reforestation
Because trees absorb carbon dioxide in the air, they are vital in controlling the global climate to sustainable levels. Unfortunately, the COVID 19 lockdowns disrupted security in many parts of the country, enabling illegal loggers to resume deforestation operations.
With lessened security, these loggers can cut trees with impunity, with little fear of legal repercussions. In fact, satellite images show that the deforestation in the Amazon rainforest surged over 50% more than the baseline level.
Things are different on the other side of the world though. Unemployment caused by COVID 19 took a surprising turn; it allowed the government to hire unemployed laborers to instigate the country’s 10 Billion Tree Tsunami campaign. As the name implies, the government plans to plant 10 billion trees this year to compensate for the annual net loss of trees.
Has COVID 19 significantly affected climate change? For now, no one knows. The complex dynamics of our planet and the cumulative effects caused by human activity takes years to manifest and become observable.
In time, we’ll know, but the pandemic does show us one thing: the lack of human activity did show clearer skies. Perhaps, this pandemic will teach us lessons on the importance of taking care of our planet.
Lillian Connors is a Senior Content Developer at ACT-ENVIRO, with years of experience in developing content.
Throughout her career, she always looked for ways to contribute to the environment in recycling efforts, while providing valuable information with her written articles.