This pandemic has exposed many deep issues regarding the relationship between our species and the natural world. After the immediate stresses, we have the opportunity to create a better, greener future but this will require global cooperation, regardless of political direction.
As the world battles Covid-19, many measures taken to combat the spread of the virus have offered environmental benefits. Across the world, countries have plunged into lockdowns, resulting in lowered air, water and noise pollution. However, the pandemic has resulted in increased strain on the fight against plastic, with previous attempts to diminish reliance drowned by the urgent need for protective equipment in this unprecedented situation. Moreover, the poorer global south has suffered economically from the complete pause on tourism and foreign aid. This has subsequently led to decreased environmental protection which has allowed for destructive activities, such as poaching, to go unnoticed.
While the world continues to fight this pandemic, the following years will be crucial regarding how we, as a collective species, choose to move forward. The European Environment Agency says that ‘the ways out of this pandemic should focus on reshaping our sustainable production and consumption systems to achieve long-term environmental benefits.’ Whether action will happen lies on the shoulders of world leaders but also consumers as a collective citizenry to keep striking and protesting at the inaction seen currently.
During the Spring of 2020, huge swathes of the world plunged into conditions never seen before – total lockdowns – a complete pause on normal life. The environment benefited from these shutdowns, as across the world, flights were cancelled and road traffic decreased dramatically; 70% in the UK and 40% in the United States. As a result, respiratory health issues directly related to air pollution decreased – there is a prediction that the cleaner air saved approximately 11,000 lives and reduced the chance of asthma developing in thousands of children in Europe.
China, the world’s biggest carbon polluter, saw a decrease in carbon emissions of 18% when they placed cities in extreme lockdowns in 2020. Globally, greenhouse gas emissions dropped 5% as a result of lockdowns in 2020. Many of us saw from the press and social media how heavy smog was clearing in many countries, allowing mountainous views in India and Nepal not seen for decades; some saw the Himalayas for the first time from where they live. This depletion in air pollution was even seen in space.
However, these initial positives have been cautioned by experts. Lockdowns may have given immediate relief, but the economic damage inflicted by them has allowed governments to negate the importance of continuing on a greener path over the need to repair economies. As lockdowns ended, traffic surged, often to levels higher than before the pandemic due to the desperate scramble to “restart life.”
Moreover, the lack of tourism in many poorer areas of the world has allowed increased poaching and wildlife destruction as conservation parks struggle to maintain staff. Due to Covid-19, parks face weakened security and even more challenges as richer countries spare less aid in order to solve their own domestic issues caused by the pandemic. In Zambia, Kafue National Park relied on tourism and Western investment to ensure successful conservation of the protected area. Both of these funding routes have since been abruptly squeezed due to the pandemic.
As well as Africa, South America saw unprecedented environmental destruction. In Brazil, despite the Covid-19 restrictions, President Bolsonaro continued his destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Levels of deforestation hit a 12 year high in the Amazon in 2020. Therefore, there are arguments that lockdowns will not have discernible long-term positive effects. Instead, they merely slow the build-up of carbon in the atmosphere and allow many other controversial and ultimately harmful acts to go ahead unnoticed.
Moreover, the pandemic has reignited the issue of plastic pollution. Pamela Coke-Hamilton, the UNCTAD’s director of international trade voiced how plastic was ‘one of the greatest threats to our planet before the coronavirus outbreak’ and now ‘the sudden boom in the daily use of certain products to keep people safe and stop the disease is making things much worse.’ The WHO estimated that at the start of the pandemic, 89 million medical masks were needed globally, 76 million gloves and 1.6 million sets of goggles every month.
Additionally, isolated living has led to increased demand for deliveries of food and other items which can no longer be purchased in stores. This has further increased single-use plastic waste from excessive packaging created by online orders. Moreover, the drop in oil prices due to decreased demand has allowed manufacturers to produce plastic from the original material, not the vast quantities of recycled plastic available. Hence, the pandemic will exacerbate the issue of plastics and disrupt the progress which has been made in recent years.
Crucially, the virus has exposed the unsustainability of modern humanity. Lockdowns highlighted to millions the damage we were inflicting on our natural world. We have now glimpsed what a cleaner future might look like and we have all been forced, as Paul De Ornellas of WWF-UK states, to ‘acknowledge that we were exerting too much pressure on the natural world by our destructive practices.’ The Covid-19 pandemic has led the Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, to call the 21st century the century to make peace with nature.
It is not too late to enact change and the pandemic has showcased how vital this change will be for the future of our planet. Policy has long been uncoordinated, regarding many aspects of environmental issues. This has reduced effectiveness of any efforts previously undertaken. The climate crisis affects all nations and in a post-Covid world, there is an opportunity to act for the greater good. As the prominent environmentalist, Lord Stern voiced, ‘in a world of fractured politics, action on climate can now draw nations and peoples together.’
To be able to save the planet, large scale cooperation is needed. On his first day in office as the new President of the United States, President Biden signed many executive orders, crucially overturning the previous administration’s removal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. Although this agreement is criticised as not nearly strict enough, with many countries not abiding by the agreement and rather increasing their emissions, Biden recommitting the United States to this scheme sends a positive signal to the world.
Moreover, the Cop26 summit, which was postponed in 2020 to November 2021, will now see the United States as an active member after four years of the Trump administration’s refusals to release emissions figures and aid in reaching a greener planet. With one of the world’s giant economic powers back on board and cooperating, there is hope for a multilateral approach instead of the increasingly divisive unilateralism the world has seen in recent years.
There is still a long way to go. Whilst a greener future seems more possible, it will take efforts never seen before by humanity as a collective to achieve a more harmonious relationship with nature. The world is at its busiest as nations try to fight the pandemic, but the simultaneous pauses in other activities has allowed us a glimpse of what is possible. To ensure that this pause and opportunity is not immediately squandered, politics must take a back seat as humanity galvanises resources and ideas to set right the course of our planet’s future.