While people have been suffering from Covid-19, the planet is still suffering from people, but now it is an opportunity to start over, in a greener way.
BETTER air quality, clearer skies, and decreased energy consumption, but also excess of single-use plastics, a decline in waste recycling, and spread of dangerous disinfectant chemicals ─ these are some of the main impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the environment. Whilst the world has been barely recovering, there have been more and more voices talking about a “green restart”.
The emissions of carbon dioxide have been intensively released into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution, being the main cause why the planet is warming and rising by circa 1% per year. However, the economic disruption by Covid-19 has turned out to be a noticeable reverse.
According to a Statista report by Ian Tiseo, global emissions of CO2 decreased by almost 9% in 2020, with a 17% decline during the first lockdown in April, compared to the same period the previous year.
If the decline continues at the same rate, the target set by the Paris Agreement, keep global warming lower than 1.5◦C above pre-industrial level, is very likely to be achieved.
Furthermore, traffic has dropped by more than 80% during the pandemic, resulting in a significant reduction of nitrogen dioxide. For instance, Delhi, the smoggiest city in the world, experienced a drop of 60% approximately, which means an unprecedented improvement in air quality.
As Ian Tiseo writes, “skies cleared over the most polluted cities and animals walked freely through the deserted urban landscapes”.
However, history has shown that once industrial activity recovers from global recession, emissions promptly climb to the original scale. Therefore, what can we do to keep it up?
“There is an economic crisis associated with the pandemic, and so when the time comes, we could restart the economy in a new, better, and greener way.”
“The numbers of people dying from Covid-19 are terrifying, but there are also long-term issues, such as the climate change, where the consequences will be much more extensive,” says Petr Doubravsky, co-founder of the Fridays for Future movement in the Czech Republic, currently studying ecological economy at Masaryk University in Brno.
“But I also think this situation may be an opportunity for us. There is an economic crisis associated with the pandemic, and so when the time comes, we could restart the economy in a new, better and greener way.”
Even though the consumption of residential energy slightly grows during the pandemic, it has been estimated that if everyone who was able to work from home did so just one day per week, global emissions would fall by around 24 million MTCO2 a year.
Mr Doubravsky believes that the key is to produce and consume all we can as close as possible to where we live.
“I think there’s no point in transporting tomatoes across the world, producing unnecessary emissions, when we can grow them here, fresh and pure, supporting the local economy and employment. Why not give up on shopping in supermarkets, and rather find out how many lovely farmers, bakers, and bulk shops we are surrounded by? And this return to the roots is something that can help us.”
Why not give up on shopping in supermarkets, and rather find out how many lovely farmers, bakers, and bulk shops we are surrounded by?
“I gave up my car three years ago, so I think everyone can do something.”
“The climate emergency is everyone’s responsibility, so everyone can play a part,” says Cllr Steve Leggett, Cabinet Member for Green City & Place of Southampton City Council.
“As an elected official, I get the opportunity to lead the Council in developing its climate emergency strategy. But as a resident, I can also do my bit. For example, I gave up my car three years ago, so I think everyone can do something.”
In order to prevent the spread of Covid-19, hygiene comes first, and hence the demand for both protective equipment and disposable packaging has dramatically increased.
However, plastic pollution poses another environmental issue. Single-use plastics currently constitute about half a plastic waste, but only up to tenth of all plastics are being recycled in the end, with most discarded in landfills or incinerated. Therefore, the reduction of our waste turns out to be the key step.
“The public should wear reusable, rather than single-use masks, owing to the environmental implications of wearing, and disposing of single-use face masks.”
Disposable protective equipment should not be worn longer than a few hours, and hence 65 billion gloves and almost 130 billion face masks would be needed monthly to protect all people around the world. Only one single-use face mask worn by every citizen in the UK means 66,000 tons of potentially contaminated plastic generated every day. But how to deal with so much waste?
Not only does burning of medical waste lead to the release of greenhouse gasses, but also harmful compounds like heavy metals or PCBs. However, plastics from which most protective equipment is made, tend to degrade into smaller microplastic pieces remaining in the environment for up to 1000 years.
According to UCL’s Plastic Waste Innovation Hub, “the public should wear reusable, rather than single-use masks, owing to the environmental implications of wearing, and disposing of single-use face masks.”
The use of reusable face masks would reduce the amount of waste by 95%.
The use of reusable face masks would reduce the amount of waste by 95%, with a 10% lower impact on climate change than single-use masks, considering manufacturing, transport, and use.
Plastic is in fact the most Covid-friendly material.
Concerns about transmission have made consumers and providers prefer disposable food packaging and plastic bags to sustainable alternatives, such as own bags and coffee cups, without the knowledge that plastic is in fact the most Covid-friendly material.
It has been proven that SARS-CoV-2 is more stable on smooth surfaces, including plastics, where it remains up to 7 days, in comparison to wood or cloth, where no infectious virus could be detected after 2 days already.