The Impact of the 2019–20 Coronavirus Pandemic on the Environment

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The worldwide disruption caused by the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic has resulted in numerous impacts on the environment and the climate. The severe decline in planned travel has caused many regions to experience a drop in air pollution. In China, lockdowns and other measures resulted in a 25 percent reduction in carbon emissions, which one Earth systems scientist estimated may have saved at least 77,000 lives over two months. However, the outbreak has also disrupted environmental diplomacy efforts, including causing the postponement of the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference, and the economic fallout from it is predicted to slow investment in green energy technologies.

Due to the coronavirus outbreak’s impact on travel and industry, many regions experienced a drop in air pollution. Reducing air pollution can reduce both climate change and COVID-19 risks but it is not yet clear which types of air pollution (if any) are common risks to both climate change and COVID-19. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air reported that methods to contain the spread of coronavirus, such as quarantines and travel bans, resulted in a 25 percent reduction of carbon emission in China. In the first month of lockdowns, China produced approximately 200 million fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide than the same period in 2019, due to the reduction in air traffic, oil refining, and coal consumption. One Earth systems scientist estimated that this reduction may have saved at least 77,000 lives. However, Sarah Ladislaw from the Center for Strategic & International Studies argued that reductions in emissions due to economic downturns should not be seen as beneficial, stating that China’s attempts to return to previous rates of growth amidst trade wars and supply chain disruptions in the energy market will worsen its environmental impact.

NASA and ESA have been monitoring how the Nitrogen dioxide gases dropped significantly during the initial Chinese phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic slowdown from the virus drastically dropped pollution levels, especially in cities like Wuhan, China by 25%.NASA uses an ozone monitoring instrument (OMI) to analyze and observe the ozone layer and pollutants such as NO2, aerosols and others. This instrument helped NASA to process and interpret the data coming in due to the lock-downs worldwide According to NASA scientists, the drop in NO2 pollution began in Wuhan, China and slowly spread to the rest of the world. It was also very drastic because the virus coincided with the same time of year as the lunar year celebrations in China. For this festival, factories and businesses closed for the last week of January to celebrate the lunar year festival. The drop in NO2 in China did not achieve an air quality of the standard considered acceptable by health authorities. Other pollutants in the air such as aerosol emissions remained.

However, extended quarantine periods have boosted adoption of remote work policies. As a consequence of the unprecedented use of disposable face masks, significant numbers are entering the natural environment, adding to the worldwide burden of plastic waste. The drop in oil prices during the coronavirus recession could be a good opportunity to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies, according to the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency. Carbon Tracker argues that China should not stimulate the economy by building planned coal-fired power stations, because many would have negative cash flow and would become stranded assets. The “restarting” of greenhouse-gas producing industries and transport following the COVID-19 lockdowns was hypothesized as an event that would contribute to increasing greenhouse gas production rather than reducing it.

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