COVID's impact on the environment provides an opportunity to do better

While waste production largely increased, carbon emissions steeply declined over the past year.

A power-generating windmill turbine is pictured during sunset at a renewable energy park in Ecoust-Saint-Mein, France (photo credit: PASCAL ROSSIGNOL/REUTERS)
A power-generating windmill turbine is pictured during sunset at a renewable energy park in Ecoust-Saint-Mein, France
The coronavirus crisis has had both good and bad effects on the environment, including decreases in air pollution and increases in unchecked hunting, providing nations with opportunities and options to implement long-term policies to combat climate change, according to a new study by the BDO Global firm.
Hunting in Africa spiked by 125% amid the crisis, without almost any enforcement or supervision by authorities. The number of visitors to nature reserves dropped dramatically, leading to large losses for a number of countries and harming efforts to protect wildlife and foliage.
Concerning domestic animals, calls concerning the need for rescue of stray dogs rose by 60% and animal adoption rose by 73% from March to June of last year.
The coronavirus crisis has also led to a huge amount of medical equipment that becomes waste each month, including 129 billion face masks and 65 billion disposable gloves, 10 to 20 times above the normal amount.
The amount of solid household waste increased by 15%-25% during the pandemic and municipal waste increased as well. Recycling slowed and the use of single-use plastics rose. On a positive note, industrial waste production fell due to a slowdown in manufacturing.
The use of strong cleaning chemicals which eventually enter water sources and even drinking water has also increased, which could put non-targeted beneficial species at risk and create an ecological imbalance. Some 970 tonnes of the hormone-disrupting pesticide Triclosan (found in disinfectants and antiseptics) end up in the global aquatic system and can serve as an allergen and a persistent environmental pollutant, as well as lead to cross-resistance to antibiotics and endocrine disruption.
The panic surrounding toilet paper and digestive system side-effects of COVID led to a 141% spike in the purchase of toilet paper during the pandemic. Since home toilet paper uses virgin material instead of recycled material, the increase could contribute to deforestation which would have negative effects on air pollution, wildlife and respiratory diseases.
The study also found that deforestation, urbanization and the trade of wild animals were likely among the factors behind the initial spread of the novel coronavirus.
COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning an infectious disease that jumps from animals to humans. About three to four new infectious diseases occur every year, mostly originating from wild animals, with about 60%-70% of new human diseases over the past 30 years being zoonotic in origin, according to the BDO study, which stated that the growth of such disease outbreaks is a sign of a breakdown in the relationship between humans and nature.
In some good news, carbon emissions steeply declined over the past year as global electricity consumption dropped by 7% and emission production by industry dropped by 19%, ground transport dropped by 36% and aviation dropped by 60%. Despite the reductions recorded, emissions began to rebound later in Quarter 1 of the year, indicating that the improvements won't last long once the world returns to routine if no long-lasting policies are implemented.
Additionally, NO2 pollution decreased by about 40% and PM2.5 emissions dropped between 9%-60% in cities around the world during the lockdowns.
The number of deaths attributed to air pollution, asthma cases in children and preterm births also dropped. Lockdowns implemented in many major cities led to an average decrease of 2.6 decibels in noise pollution. The World Health Organization states that noise pollution is the third most dangerous environmental threat in the world. Reduced noise pollution means less of an impact on human health, including high blood pressure, annoyance and sleep disturbance.
Global water quality has also improved with lower sea traffic and lower economic activity contributing to the improvement.
Chen Herzog, chief economist and director of the Economics, Environment and Regulation Unit at BDO Consulting Israel, stated that while the coronavirus has had a positive impact on the environment due to the decline in business activity and transport and the transition to working from home, these are short-term effects that will end shortly after the return to routine unless action is taken to maintain some of the positive habits formed during the crisis. Producing long-term government policy on the issue and encouraging green infrastructure is the challenge facing the world, according to Herzog.
The BDO study encouraged the implementation of a number of environmental strategies, including renewable energy, wastewater treatment and reuse, recycling, ecotourism and green transport. Allowing workers to continue working from home for even one day out of the week could lead to long-term emission reductions, less plastic and paper usage, and reduced power consumption.