We approached the end of the year - and that means it’s time to both set some intentions and face some truths.
The past year was another strange one, with the pandemic still ongoing and for many people daily lives interrupted, forced to change in ways that were often uncomfortable. The way we live, the way we work, how often we even leave our houses - have all needed to adapt. But in spite of (or maybe because of?!) the undeniable challenges we’ve been enduring, it hasn’t been all bad.
How has the pandemic changed the environment?
At the end of 2020, data from NASA, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and ESA (European Space Agency) Earth-observing satellites and others were collated to give us an idea about what was going on. Here’s what they found:
Deforestation rates were changing: Though Brazil’s rainforests suffered greatly, deforestation rates slowed considerably in places like Colombia and Peru.
Reduction in air and environmental pollution: Cleaner air was recorded all around the world, due to industries grinding to a halt during government-enforced lockdowns. A study based on satellite imagery from Landsat showed that air pollutants in India dropped a third to a fourth compared with pre-pandemic levels.
Compared with 2019, levels of air pollutants in Ney York were reduced by nearly half because of lockdowns (Henriques, 2020), and it was estimated that there was an almost 50% reduction of N2O and CO that occurred due to the shutdown of heavy industries in China (Caine, 2020).
With a huge amount of people being forced to stay at home, there was a massive drop in the number of cars and trucks on the road. Emissions from vehicles are one of the leading producers of GHGs (Greenhouse gases), which was another major cause for a change in numbers compared with pre-pandemic times.
Water quality was improving: Nima Pahlevan, a scientist at NASA, conducted a study on the impact of the pandemic on water quality in different parts of the world. He did this mostly by analysing the levels of suspended substances and phytoplankton in the water of a given region. In Manhattan, he found a clear result:
Since New York went into lockdown, significantly fewer people were commuting into Manhattan to go to work. As such, many (if not the vast majority) of the borough’s 2 million-odd commuters were staying at home, meaning the sewage that would normally be amassed and treated was simply not there, and therefore not being released into the Hudson River.
Huge studies were also conducted in various parts of India, which saw some of the greatest changes to water quality of anywhere in the world. The closure of industry meant that the often extremely polluted bodies of water, like the Ganga and Yamuna rivers, actually reached permissible levels of purity. This has been put down to a massive reduction in visitors to the area and, most notably, a whopping 500% reduction in sewage and industrial waste.
A great turn up for the books, no doubt. But it has to be said that once pre-pandemic behaviours resume, the positive change in water quality will most likely drop back to what it was before.
Snow was becoming more reflective in certain areas: Since air quality was improving, there was less dust and other pollutants settling on snowy areas. Cleaner snow has a higher albedo, meaning it reflects more light and therefore melts at a slower rate.
In fact, it was discovered that during the pandemic, snow albedo has been higher than any time in the past 20 years; we can surmise this is due to massively reduced travel and industrial goings ons.).
Science Daily reported that “the models showed that pollutants accumulating on the snow decreased by 36 parts per million below the pre-pandemic average -- a change that could delay the melting of enough snow to fill up Lake Tahoe Dam in California”.
Granted, at the time this data merely suggested that the pandemic was the reason behind these positive changes - but the timing of it all was a strong indicator that these theories were most certainly correct.
But it hasn’t all been positive, as far as the environment is concerned.
Some of the less palatable effects of the pandemic on the environment include:
The careless disposable of PPE gear, such as face masks and gloves, have resulted in increased littering, plastic waste - and as a result, soil and water pollution.
Huge amounts of hazardous hospital and chemical waste has had to be disposed of
Lockdowns may have had an impact on people’s recycling behaviours.
Larger amounts of municipal and solid waste were recorded (those online shopping habits can have a huge impact).
The use of harmful disinfectants applied to roads, domestically, and in commercial areas to kill the COVID-19 virus have actually been damaging other beneficial species, leading to ecological imbalances.
So, what’s the bottom line going forward?
While we’ve witnessed some pretty profound positive environmental changes during 2020 and 2021, we can’t become complacent and let our behaviour return to what it was pre-pandemic.
We have had the great gift of seeing exactly what the effect of our daily behaviour is on the environment - and what it can become if we change our ways.
How we travel (and how often), what we buy, what we waste, how that waste is disposed of - it’s all in our hands. Let’s make the right decisions in 2022.