Seven Expert Perspectives on What COVID-19 Means for the Planet

The COVID-19 pandemic will have repercussions that will follow the planet for years. The economic, social, healthcare, and environmental outcomes from the pandemic will remain, even once the pandemic itself is resolved. Seven experts from the World Economic Forum have given seven different perspectives on the pandemic’s environmental repercussions.


Here are the seven impacts of COVID-19 on the environment: 

  1. Air pollution levels are lower for the first time in 15 years, however CO2 emissions are still on the rise. During the early days of lockdown during the pandemic, many photos went viral comparing the air quality in cities like Los Angeles, Seoul, Wuhan, and Mumbai. New Delhi, which is frequently listed as the world’s most polluted city, saw a 60% reduction in which frequently tops the world’s most polluted city lists — saw a 60% reduction in PM2.5 levels from March 23 to April 13 from the same period in 2019. However, the concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere is still rising. According to Larissa Basso, a postdoctoral fellow at Stockholm University, it is because CO2 molecules can persist in the atmosphere for up to 200 years. To combat this, the International Energy Agency has called for a global investment of $1 trillion, “to accelerate the move to zero-carbon energy. Its plan would create 9 million jobs a year, reduce emissions by 4.5 billion tonnes globally and deliver a sustainable recovery.”
  1. The pandemic has caused huge levels of food waste. The lockdown caused restaurants, shops, and any non-essential food outlets to close, causing a huge food waste dump into the landfills. With any food waste comes a rise in methane levels, which are currently at an all time high. Methane makes up at least half of all emissions from landfills. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is around 28 times more potent than CO2 at warming the earth. The World Economic Forum started an initiative called ‘The Great Reset’ in order to manage the environmental consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically the amount of food waste during a time of rising global poverty. 
  2. In the interest of public health, plastic coverings, utensils, masks, and bags have become essential in keeping people safe, and treating people at hospitals suffering from COVID-19. In China, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment estimates that hospitals in Wuhan produced more than 240 tons of waste daily at the height of the outbreak, compared with 40 tons during normal times. Some experts say that plastic is being used so much that we are storing up a plastics crisis for the future. The pandemic threatens to stall or even reverse progress to reduce global plastic waste, says Jacob Duer, President and CEO, Alliance to End Plastic Waste. In the UK, illegal dumping of trash has risen 300% during the crisis.
  3. The pandemic has given way to a rise in poverty as well. The World Bank predicts that as many as 100 million extra people could be pushed into extreme poverty by the pandemic due to its effect on the global economy. Extreme poverty is defined as people living on less than $1.90 a day. Those living in extreme poverty do not have the privilege to think about how their actions might affect the environment when they are trying to survive day to day. 
  4. Immunization has been set back by the pandemic. UNICEF estimates that 80 million children under the age of one could go unvaccinated due to the prioritization of COVID-19 over the normal immunizations. “Immunization is one of the most powerful and fundamental disease prevention tools in the history of public health,” says Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization Director-General. “Disruption to immunization programmes from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to unwind decades of progress against vaccine-preventable diseases like measles,” he adds.
  5. The response to the effects of COVID must be to “Build Back Better” in short, to become even more environmentally conscious than before. The IKEA Foundation, from the IKEA furniture company, has outlined a five point program to build a more sustainable post-COVID world. This program included: protect the planet; renewable energy for all; a changed relationship to food; dignified work and entrepreneurship; and leave no one behind. “Challenging situations can bring out the best in people. Solidarity, unprecedented collaboration and new ways of thinking can help us emerge stronger and smarter from this pandemic,” the head of the IKEA Foundation said. .
  1. Looking after the environment could help prevent future pandemics 1.7 million viruses, known to infect humans, exist in mammals and water birds. Deforestation, intensive farming, mining and development, coupled with the exploitation of wild species have created a “perfect storm” for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people. “We can build back better and emerge from the current crisis stronger and more resilient than ever – but to do so means choosing policies and actions that protect nature – so that nature can help to protect us,” experts say.

It will be years until all of the effects of the pandemic are realized, but trying to continue or reverse some of the damage of plastics, food waste, greenhouse gas emissions, the millions sliding into extreme poverty, and the lack of immunizations can have devastating effects on our planet and population. It is critical that these effects are mitigated and that we as a planet are able to “Build Back Better.” 

 

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Kalyna White is an Assistant Editor at HSToday for Climate Change Security and is the STEM Ambassador to the Board of Directors for Women in Homeland Security. She is the founder of LABUkraine, a non-profit organization that builds computer labs for orphans in Ukraine. Since 2011 she has worked with Women in Homeland Security to encourage middle and high school student to pursue STEM careers by organizing and supporting field trips to STEM missions throughout the homeland security enterprise. She is also President of the University of California, San Diego Pi Beta Phi chapter.

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