Three Positive Environmental Impacts Driven by COVID-19

It’s like Mother Earth finally got fed up with the way humanity was treating her as its industrial waste dump. “Hold my beer,” she said, as she unleashed a viral contagion intended to slap us all upside the head and redirect our attention to caring for her instead of killing her. Her action worked: the COVID-19 pandemic caused all of humanity to stop virtually all activity, including those harmful activities that cause the planet so much damage. In the short term, Mama Earth (Mama) scored some great points …

Three Big Positive Environmental Impacts Driven by COVID-19

Reduced Fossil Fuel Emissions

Clearly fed up with the spotty response to the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, Mama took aim at her most significant injury, the frighteningly high atmospheric CO2 levels. For the past 400,000 years, measured CO2 levels remained under 300 parts per million (ppm), spiking every 100,000 years or so as Earth endured alternating heating and cooling cycles.

However, in 1950, for the first time in recordable history, the CO2 level rose above 300ppm and has been climbing ever since. Tests indicate that the rising trend began around ~1750, fifty years after the launch of the Industrial Revolution, during which global populations started using fossil fuels for industrial purposes. In 2013, the CO2 level hit 400ppm and is expected to hover, on average, around 416ppm throughout 2021. CO2 is a known cause of environmental damage and a significant driver of climate change.

“Enough!” Mama said, “no more fossil fuel emissions!” With the world in quarantine, global transportation systems — the chief contributors to CO2 emissions — came to an abrupt stop. In the subsequent ten months (through December 2020), global fossil fuel emissions dropped by 7%, the largest absolute drop in CO2 emissions ever recorded.

Sustaining that reduced level, however, poses a challenge. Previous global crises (the 2009 economic recession, for example) saw a similar CO2 drop (then of only 1.3%), then a rebound that drove CO2 levels even higher. Optimally, enlightened leaders and the world’s science community will find a way to capture and enhance this moment of atmospheric clarity to prevent that rebound after COVID finally recedes.

Improved Water Quality

Water quality also improved. Clean water is integral to optimal health — of the body, the community, and the planet. For eons, humans have sited their living quarters next to a freshwater source, so they could drink it, farm with it, and wash with it. Unfortunately, they also used their water sources as their waste disposal systems, initially to carry away human and hand-based agriculture disposal, but also, as industrialization expanded, to carry away the chemicals and residues generated by their machines.

It wasn’t until the 1800’s that the connection was made between unhealthy water and ill health in populations when tainted water was traced as the cause for major disease outbreaks such as cholera and typhoid.

Yet, despite this knowledge, humans continued to dump their waste into their local rivers and streams. In the mid-20thCentury, the practice became even more toxic as the ‘plastics’ age took hold. Synthetic materials (polychlorinated biphenyls [PCBs] and dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane [DDT], to name just two) began contaminating natural waterways. Tragically, those non-organic materials aren’t biodegradable, so they never leave (and have never left) those ecosystems.

“Hold on just a second,” repeated Mama Earth. “Stop dumping toxins into my water!” Her COVID-10 pandemic caused an immediate shift in water usage as manufacturing slowed and people stopped commuting to work. Within months of the first global lockdowns, rivers and waterways began showing renewed signs of life.

  • In Venice, for example, the volume of ‘total suspended matter’ (TSM — the sediment floating in water that obscures its transparency) dropped by 50%, enabling sea creatures to venture back into its canals. Beaches around the world (Mexico, Ecuador, and Spain, i.e.) reported the same phenomena.
  • In the U.S., the Hudson River, which runs up the west side of New York’s island of Manhattan, also experienced cleaner, clearer water as many of the city’s 2.1 million commuters stayed home rather than travel to the borough for work.
  • In India, the COVID-driven lockdown improved water quality by 40 to 50%. That statistic is notable considering that much of the toxic ‘effluent’ (industrial waste products dumped into waterways) is untreated, exposing the people who use that water to toxins such as heavy metal ions, PCBs, and petrochemicals.

Again, sustaining these improvements will prove challenging, but it is encouraging to see how quickly the water resources cleared of the contaminants.

Ecological Restoration

The global travel freeze caused by COVID-19 also brought a reprieve to the planets’ ecologically sensitive regions, many of which are typically swarmed by tourists. Before the pandemic, global travel accounted for a full 8% of all toxic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. All that travel generated human developments, including hotels, transportation systems, markets, etc., all of which eroded the quality of the uber-sensitive ecosystem, which was attracting all the attention in the first place.

“Stop it!” she roared. “Leave my creatures be!” declared Mama. Her COVID-19 pandemic terminated almost all global travel throughout 2020 and now into 2021. Without travel facilities, tourists can’t ramble about the planet’s most fragile habitats, so those regions have had a chance to recuperate and recover from that otherwise constant onslaught.

One natural inhabitant of those sensitive areas, the global bee population, is apparently rebounding because of the cessation of tourism. For decades, the number of bees worldwide has been shrinking as more wildlands are paved over and more pesticides kill off their primary food sources. Just in the U.S., the honey bee population fell by 38% between October 1, 2018, and April 1, 2019. COVID appears to be reversing that trend, at least in the short run.

While the counting of individual bees is hampered by the same quarantine rules prohibiting other activities, increased honey production indicates that bees are back and enjoying significant productivity. In India, honey producers are experiencing substantial increases in honey production, sometimes by as much as 200%. Researchers believe that cleaner air (fewer air pollutants) allows bees to find more floral scents for nectar gathering. With fewer cars on the road, the ‘road mortality’ of possibly billions of bees is avoided.

Sustaining a growing bee population should be a critical priority for every country since the creatures are responsible for generating billions of tons of food annually and more billions of dollars of economic value.

Earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, and more ‘natural’ phenomena continue to show us Mother Earth’s power to dwarf even the most sophisticated human endeavor. The coronavirus pandemic is just another example of that power, demonstrating the planet’s capacity to fully and completely shut down its most verminous inhabitant. Perhaps humankind should take advantage of the small windows of planetary health offered by the COVID concern to reset its path toward a healthier future. The next pandemic (and there WILL undoubtedly be a next pandemic) may not be so gracious with its offerings.

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Writer, lawyer (recovering), mother — not in that order. Defender of the environment, children, vulnerable people. Explainer of many things. Drinks wine.

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Pam Sornson

Pam Sornson

Writer, lawyer (recovering), mother — not in that order. Defender of the environment, children, vulnerable people. Explainer of many things. Drinks wine.

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