Drew Miller, MJLST Staffer
2020 was a strange, difficult year for billions of people as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across the globe. The virus has claimed the lives of over 2,500,000 people, but the effects of the pandemic extend well beyond the loss of life. In an effort to slow the spread of the virus, governments at every level around the world began to implement protective measures such as stay-at-home orders and travel bans as early as March 2020 in the United States—nearly a full year ago. The mass quarantine forced over 100,000 businesses to close their doors in the first two months—some temporarily, some permanently— which in turn led to a rise in unemployment and massive drops in stock markets such as the Dow Jones and the FTSE. These economic effects and their potential remedies have been debated endlessly by news organizations, politicians, and regular citizens alike. However, the environmental effects of the pandemic have not been covered as extensively. Reduced travel tendencies have provided the climate and environment a reprieve, but it will not last; if we are to continue down the road towards environmental sustainability, we must continue to push for reform despite the unique challenges presented by COVID-19.
In mid-March, 2020, scattered among an unremitting flood of bad news, some happy stories emerged. Swans and dolphins had returned to formerly desolate Venice canals. A group of elephants had sauntered through a village in Yunnan, China, gotten drunk off corn wine, and passed out in a tea garden. Wild boars were wandering through towns. The stories continued. These reports of the Earth healing and wildlife reclaiming space in a world without people went viral, and understandably so: they offered a spark of light in a dark and uncertain time. One tweet (since deleted) about fish, swans, and clear water in Venice canals amassed over 1,000,000 likes.
Unfortunately, the stories weren’t real. “The swans … regularly appear in the canals of Burano.” “The ‘Venetian’ dolphins were filmed at a port in Sardinia, in the Mediterranean Sea, hundreds of miles away.” The water was clearer because fewer boats were disturbing the sediment at the bottom. The elephants are a regular presence in the depicted village. If anything, allow these stories to serve as a reminder not to believe everything on the internet.
Moreover, the pandemic may have hurt wildlife more than it helped. Many governments pay for environmental conservation and enforcement initiatives with tourism revenue. As that revenue dried up and budgets were cut, those protections weakened. Financial distress caused by widespread unemployment further exacerbated the situation. In April, there were reports of increased falcon smuggling in Pakistan; in June, poaching of leopards and tigers in India; and in October, trafficking of rhino horns in South Africa and Botswana. The chaos of the pandemic also provided cover for illegal logging in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, which rose more than 50% in the first three months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
Nevertheless, despite the absence of Venetian dolphins, the pandemic looked “okay” from an environmental perspective in 2020. Although there was an uptick in reliance on single-use plastics during lockdowns and increased generation of biomedical waste, pollution levels improved. Transportation, the most significant source of greenhouse gases in the United States, saw a 14.7% decline in emissions, and America’s greenhouse gas emissions from energy and industry plummeted more than 10 percent in 2020, reaching their lowest levels in at least three decades. According to a research group, the fall in emissions nationwide was the largest one-year decline since at least World War II. There were also reduced levels of water and noise pollution.
Unfortunately, the pollution-related benefits of COVID-19 are likely only temporary. Emissions reductions and air quality improvements primarily resulted from reduced transportation. Consequently, as more people return to their typical travel habits, emissions and air quality are likely to bounce back to their pre-pandemic levels. As Corinne Le Quere, professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia in Britain, stated, “We still have the same cars, the same roads, the same industries, same houses. So as soon as the restrictions are released, we go right back to where we were.”
In fact, emissions may bounce back to levels even higher than they were prior to the pandemic due to the dismantling of numerous climate and environmental policies worldwide. In the United States, nearly 100 environmental protection policies and regulations were reversed or rolled back during the Trump presidency. Citing economic concerns due to COVID, the Czech Prime Minister urged the European Union to abandon the Green New Deal and the European Automobile Manufacturers Association lobbied the European Commission to weaken vehicle emission standards.
COVID-19 has impacted just about every industry in the world, and its economic ramifications continue to present significant difficulties. However, the pandemic is, ultimately, temporary; rebuilding will be challenging, but just as the economy rebounded after the 2008 recession, so it will do again. The Earth may not be so resilient. If we are to achieve a healthier and more sustainable world, businesses and policymakers alike must not recoil from that effort even in the face of unexpected bumps in the road—instead, they must forge ahead.