In light of the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, the worldwide pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2, and all of its negative effects, people have been searching for some silver lining to the whole mess. I am someone who is passionate about saving the environment, and I was thrilled to hear about positive environmental outcomes that the pandemic caused. Unfortunately, while rumors have circled around that the environment has benefitted from quarantine, experts are now saying the opposite could soon be true. It is hard to tell what the future will hold, but signs point to a risk of a future with more traffic, pollution, and resulting climate change.
During April, the prime of stay-at-home orders and when most people were on full lockdown, daily global carbon emissions were down 17% from 2019. However, by June they were only down about 5% from 2019, and at this point many people were still not going about daily life like “normal.” Corinne Le Quéré, professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia in Britain says that “as soon as the restrictions are released, we go right back to where we were.” A somewhat similar situation during the 2007-2008 financial crisis provides some insight into the future. At the time, emissions dropped, but later rose right back up.
China exhibits an example of a quickly diminished hope of change in their air quality. As they were the first country to shut down, they had a dramatic shift in air quality due to slowed manufacturing and transportation. However, they were also one of the first countries to begin reopening, and this change did not last long. Factories pushed to make up for lost time and the pollution consequently returned, even growing to higher levels than before the pandemic in certain places. Traffic levels have also apparently bounced back to the same magnitude as before the pandemic, despite the fact that there are still people who have not yet returned to regular life and are unaccounted for in this statistic. Furthermore, industries in fossil fuels, plastics, airlines, automobiles, etc. have been negatively impacted by the virus and now are searching for any way they can to make a profit. Governments including the US have complied with their pleas for cash, regulatory rollbacks, and other “special favors.” As a result, “there’s a serious risk that polluters could emerge from this crisis bolder and potentially more profitable than ever,” says Lukas Ross, a senior policy analyst at Friends of the Earth.
Another devastating example of negative environmental impacts can be seen in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. During the pandemic illegal loggers, people who harvest, transport, process, buy, or sell timber in violation of national or subnational laws, took advantage of the “smokescreen” provided by the pandemic and caused destruction in the rainforest that surpassed amounts in previous years. According to satellite data, 64% more land was cleared in April 2020 than in April 2019, despite 2019 being a record year for deforestation for the past decade. This is significant because the Amazon rainforest plays a vital role in regulating the world’s oxygen and carbon cycles, producing roughly six percent of the world’s oxygen. As we know from biology class, oxygen is essential as it is one of the main building blocks of life. Our cells need oxygen to produce various proteins, and ultimately more cells. Oxygen is also crucial in many of our body systems. Without oxygen, the creation of carbohydrates, nucleic acids, and lipids would be impossible. The Amazon, which produces a significant amount of oxygen, is being destroyed more and more every year. The rainforest is also considered a carbon sink, meaning it absorbs large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, lowering CO2 concentrations. Its function as a carbon sink helps combat CO2 levels in the atmosphere and climate change.
It is unknown what else is in store for the environment in the remainder of the pandemic and in coming years, but we can only hope for the best.