Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the environment

Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Images from the NASA Earth Observatory show a stark drop in pollution in Wuhan, when comparing NO2 levels in early 2019 (top) and early 2020 (bottom).[1]

The worldwide disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in numerous positive effects to the environment and climate.[2] The global reduction in modern human activity such as the considerable decline in planned travel was coined anthropause and has caused a large drop in air pollution and water pollution in many regions.[2][3][4][5][6] In China, lockdowns and other measures resulted in a 25 percent reduction in carbon emissions and 50 percent reduction in nitrogen oxides emissions, which one Earth systems scientist estimated may have saved at least 77,000 lives over two months.[7][8][9][10]

Other positive effects on the environment include governance-system-controlled investments towards a sustainable energy transition and other goals related to environmental protection such as the European Union's seven-year €1 trillion budget proposal and €750 billion recovery plan "Next Generation EU" which seeks to reserve 25 percent of EU spending for climate-friendly expenditure.[11][12][13]

However, some human activity during the pandemic also provided cover for illegal activities such as deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and increased poaching in Africa. The hindering of environmental diplomacy efforts in combination of late capitalism also created economic fallout that some predict will slow investment in green energy technologies.[14][15][16][17][18][19][excessive citations]


Up to 2020, increase in the amount of greenhouse gases produced since the beginning of the industrialization era caused average global temperatures on the Earth to rise, causing effects including the melting of glaciers and rising sea levels.[20][21][22]

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, measures that were expected to be recommended to health authorities in the case of a pandemic included quarantines and social distancing.[23]

Independently, also prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers argued that reduced economic activity would help decrease global warming as well as air and marine pollution, allowing the environment to slowly flourish.[24] This effect has been observed following past pandemics in 14th century Eurasia and 16th-17th century North and South America.[25]

Researchers and officials have also called for biodiversity protections to form part of COVID-19 recovery strategies.[26][27]

Air quality

TROPOMI data shows the NO2 levels in China at the beginning of 2020. Image from Earth Observatory.
The reduction in motor vehicle traffic has led to a drop in air pollution levels. Inset is the empty A1 motorway in Slovenia on 22 March 2020

Due to the pandemic's impact on travel and industry, many regions and the planet as a whole experienced a drop in air pollution.[7][28][29] Reducing air pollution can reduce both climate change and COVID-19 risks[30] but it is not yet clear which types of air pollution (if any) are common risks to both climate change and COVID-19. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air reported that methods to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2, such as quarantines and travel bans, resulted in a 25 percent reduction of carbon emission in China.[8][10] In the first month of lockdowns, China produced approximately 200 million fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide than the same period in 2019, due to the reduction in air traffic, oil refining, and coal consumption.[10] In this same period car travel fell by 70% in the UK.[31] One Earth systems scientist estimated that this reduction may have saved at least 77,000 lives.[10] However, Sarah Ladislaw from the Center for Strategic & International Studies argued that reductions in emissions due to economic downturns should not be seen as beneficial, stating that China's attempts to return to previous rates of growth amidst trade wars and supply chain disruptions in the energy market will worsen its environmental impact.[32] Additionally, Nature reported that in 2020, global carbon emissions only fell by 6.4%.[33] Between 1 January and 11 March 2020, the European Space Agency observed a marked decline in nitrous oxide emissions from cars, power plants, and factories in the Po Valley region in northern Italy, coinciding with lockdowns in the region.[34] From areas in North India such as Jalandhar, the Himalayas became visible again for the first time in decades, as air quality improved due to the drop in pollution.[35][36]

NOx emission changes in East China[7]

NASA and the ESA have been monitoring how the nitrogen dioxide gases dropped significantly during the initial Chinese phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic slowdown from the virus drastically dropped pollution levels, especially in cities like Wuhan, China by 25-40%.[7][37][38] NASA uses an ozone monitoring instrument (OMI) to analyze and observe the ozone layer and pollutants such as NO2, aerosols and others. This instrument helped NASA to process and interpret the data coming in due to the lock-downs worldwide.[39] According to NASA scientists, the drop in NO2 pollution began in Wuhan, China and slowly spread to the rest of the world. The drop was also very drastic because the virus coincided with the same time of year as the lunar year celebrations in China.[7] During this festival, factories and businesses were closed for the last week of January to celebrate the lunar year festival.[40] The drop in NO2 in China did not achieve an air quality of the standard considered acceptable by health authorities. Other pollutants in the air such as aerosol emissions remained.[41]

A joint research led by scientists from China and U.S. estimated that nitrogen oxides (NOx=NO+NO2) emissions decreased by 50% in East China from 23 January (Wuhan lockdown) to 9 February 2020 in comparison to the period from 1 to 22 January 2020.[7] Emissions then increased by 26% from 10 February (back-to-work day) to 12 March 2020, indicating possible increasing socioeconomic activities after most provinces allowed businesses to open.[7] It is yet to be investigated what COVID-19 control measures are most efficient controlling virus spread and least socioeconomic impact.[7]

According to the World Health Organization, more than 80% of individuals living in cities are exposed to dangerous air pollution, which has been associated to an increased risk of COVID-19 problems and mortality.[42][43][44][45]

Water quality

Oregon State University researchers testing wastewater for the virus that causes COVID-19


The Peruvian jungle experienced 14 oil spills from the beginning of the pandemic through early October 2020. Of these, eight spills were in a single sector operated by Frontera Energy del Perú S.A. which ceased operations during the pandemic and is not maintaining its wells and pipes. The oil seeps into the ground where it contaminates the drinking water of indigenous people in Quichua territory.[46]


In Venice, shortly after quarantine began in March and April 2020, water in the canals cleared and experienced greater water flow.[47] The increase in water clarity was due to the settling of sediment that is disturbed by boat traffic and mentioned the decrease in air pollution along the waterways.[48]


In India, a study was conducted on the river Damodar, located in the Jharkhand state, in January 2021, revealing a significant change of the water quality during the pandemic. In the pre-lockdown period, the Water Pollution Index (WPI) of all samples from the river fell between 1.59 to 2.46, indicating a high level of pollution. In contrast, during the lockdown the WPI for water samples ranged from 0.52 to 0.78, indicating that most samples were either ‘good' water or ‘moderately polluted' water. The significant improvement in the WPI suggested that the shutdowns of heavy industries and subsequent reduction of toxic pollutants led to an increase the water quality.[49]


Fish prices and demand for fish have decreased due to the pandemic,[50] and fishing fleets around the world sit mostly idle.[51] German scientist Rainer Froese has said the fish biomass will increase due to the sharp decline in fishing, and projected that in European waters, some fish such as herring could double their biomass.[50] As of April 2020, signs of aquatic recovery remain mostly anecdotal.[52]

As people stayed at home due to lockdown and travel restrictions, some animals have been spotted in cities. Sea turtles were spotted laying eggs on beaches they once avoided (such as the coast of the Bay of Bengal), due to the lowered levels of human interference and light pollution.[53] In the United States, fatal vehicle collisions with animals such as deer, elk, moose, bears, mountain lions fell by 58% during March and April.[54]

Conservationists expect that African countries will experience a massive surge in bush meat poaching. Matt Brown of the Nature Conservancy said that "When people don't have any other alternative for income, our prediction -- and we're seeing this in South Africa -- is that poaching will go up for high-value products like rhino horn and ivory."[14][15] On the other hand, Gabon decided to ban the human consumption of bats and pangolins, to stem the spread of zoonotic diseases, as SARS-CoV-2 was thought to have transmitted itself to humans through these animals.[55] Pangolins are no longer thought to have transmitted SARS-CoV-2.[56] In June 2020, Myanmar allowed breeding of endangered animals such as tigers, pangolins, and elephants. Experts fear that the Southeast Asian country's attempts to deregulate wildlife hunting and breeding may create "a New Covid-19."[57]

Deforestation and reforestation

The disruption from the pandemic provided cover for illegal deforestation operations. This was observed in Brazil, where satellite imagery showed deforestation of the Amazon rainforest surging by over 50 percent compared to baseline levels.[17][18] Unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic facilitated the recruitment of labourers for Pakistan's 10 Billion Tree Tsunami campaign to plant 10 billion trees – the estimated global annual net loss of trees[58] – over the span of 5 years.[59][60]

Carbon emissions

Change in global daily fossil CO₂ emissions, % during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Daily CO₂ emissions by 6 sectors in 2019 and first half of 2020[61]
Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on daily CO₂ emissions globally and in 11 nations[61]

A study published in May 2020 found that the daily global carbon emissions during the lockdown measures in early April fell by 17% and could lead to an annual carbon emissions decline of up to 7%, which would be the biggest drop since World War II according to the researchers.[2] They ascribe these decreases mainly to the reduction of transportation usage and industrial activities.[62][63] However, it has been noted that rebounding could diminish reductions due to the more limited industrial activities.[64] Nevertheless, societal shifts caused by the COVID-19 lockdowns – like widespread telecommuting, adoption of remote work policies,[65][66] and the use of virtual conference technology – may have a more sustained impact beyond the short-term reduction of transportation usage.[64][67] In a study published in September 2020, scientists estimate that such behavioral changes developed during confinement may reduce 15% of all transportation CO₂ emissions permanently.[68]

Despite this, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was the highest ever recorded in human history in May 2020.[69] Energy and climate expert Constantine Samaras states that "a pandemic is the worst possible way to reduce emissions" and that "technological, behavioural, and structural change is the best and only way to reduce emissions".[69] Tsinghua University's Zhu Liu clarifies that "only when we would reduce our emissions even more than this for longer would we be able to see the decline in concentrations in the atmosphere".[69] The world's demand for fossil fuels has decreased by almost 10% amid COVID-19 measures and reportedly many energy economists believe it may not recover from the crisis.[70]

Impact on climate

In a study published in August 2020, scientists estimated that global NOx emissions declined by as much as 30% in April but were offset by ~20% reduction in global SO₂ emissions that weakens the cooling effect and conclude that the direct effect of the response to the pandemic on global warming will likely be negligible, with an estimated cooling of around 0.01 ±0.005 °C by 2030 compared to a baseline scenario but that indirect effects due to an economic recovery tailored towards stimulating a green economy, such as by reducing fossil fuel investments, could avoid future warming of 0.3 °C by 2050.[71][72] The study indicates that systemic change in how humanity powers and feeds itself is required for a substantial impact on global warming.[71]

In October 2020 scientists reported, based on near-real-time activity data, an 'unprecedented' abrupt 8.8% decrease in global CO₂ emissions in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, larger than during previous economic downturns and World War II. Authors note that such decreases of human activities "cannot be the answer" and that structural and transformational changes in human economic management and behaviour systems are needed.[73][61]

In January 2021 scientists reported that reductions in air due to worldwide COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 were larger than previously estimated and conclude that, because of that, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the climate during that year was a slight warming of Earth's climate of the year, instead of a slight cooling. They used climate models to identify small impacts that could not be discerned with observations. The study's lead author noted that aerosol emissions have major health ramifications and that they can't be part of a viable approach for mitigating global warming.[2][74][75][76][better source needed][clarification needed]

Fossil fuel industry

A report by the London-based think tank Carbon Tracker concludes that the COVID-19 pandemic may have pushed the fossil fuel industry into "terminal decline" as demand for oil and gas decreases while governments aim to accelerate the clean energy transition. It predicts that an annual 2% decline in demand for fossil fuels could cause the future profits of oil, gas and coal companies to collapse from an estimated $39tn to $14tn.[77][70] However, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance more than half a trillion dollars worldwide are currently intended to be poured into high-carbon industries.[78] Preliminary disclosures from the Bank of England's Covid Corporate Financing Facility indicate that billions of pounds of taxpayer support are intended to be funneled to fossil fuel companies.[78] According to Reclaim Finance the European Central Bank intends to allocate as much as €220bn (£193bn) to fossil fuel industries.[78] An assessment by Ernst & Young finds that a stimulus program that focuses on renewable energy and climate-friendly projects could create more than 100,000 direct jobs across Australia and estimates that every $1m spent on renewable energy and exports creates 4.8 full-time jobs in renewable infrastructure while $1m on fossil fuel projects would only create 1.7 full-time jobs.[79]

In addition, also due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry, natural gas prices have dropped so low that gas producers were burning it off on-site (not being worth the cost to transport it to cracking facilities). Bans on single-use consumer plastic (in China, the European Union, Canada, and many countries in Africa), and bans on plastic bags (in several states in the USA) have also reduced demand for plastics considerably. Many cracking facilities in the USA have been suspended. The petrochemical industry has been trying to save itself by attempting to rapidly expand demand for plastic products worldwide (i.e. through pushbacks on plastic bans and by increasing the number of products wrapped in plastic in countries where plastic use is not already as widespread (i.e. developing nations)).[80]


During the pandemic many people have started cycling[81] and bike sales surged.[82][83][84][85][86] Many cities set up semi-permanent "pop-up bike lanes" to provide people who switch from public transit to bicycles with more room.[87][88][89][90] In Berlin proposals exist to make the initially reversible changes permanent.[91][92][93][94][95]

Retail and food production

Small-scale farmers have been embracing digital technologies as a way to directly sell produce, and community-supported agriculture and direct-sell delivery systems are on the rise.[96] These methods have benefited smaller online grocery stores which predominantly sell organic and more local food and can have a positive environmental impact due to consumers who prefer to receive deliveries rather than travel to the store by car.[97] Online grocery shopping has grown substantially during the pandemic.[98]

While carbon emissions dropped during the pandemic, methane emissions from livestock continued to rise. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.[99]


Surgical mask abandoned at the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau in December 2020

As a consequence of the unprecedented use of disposable face masks, a significant number of masks were discarded in the natural environment, adding to the worldwide burden of plastic waste.[100] During the COVID-19 pandemic, plastics demand for medical usage has increased considerably in some countries. Besides personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves, a considerable increase in plastic usage has been related to requirements packaging, and single-use items. Collectively, these shifts in hospitals and regular life may exacerbate environmental issues with plastics, which already existed even before the pandemic occurred.[101]

According to a study conducted by MIT, the effects of the pandemic are estimated to generate up to 7,200 tons of medical waste every day, much of which are disposable masks. The data was collected during the first six months of the pandemic (late March 2020 to late September 2020) in the United States. These calculations only pertained to healthcare workers, not including mask usage by the general public. Theoretically, if every health care worker in the United States wore a new N95 mask for every patient they encountered, the total number of masks required would be approximately 7.4 billion, at a cost of $6.4 billion. This would lead to 84 million kilograms of waste. However, the same study also found that decontaminating regular N95 masks, thereby making the masks reusable, drops environmental waste by 75% and fully reusable silicone N95 masks could offer an even greater reduction in waste.[102]

Investments and other economic measures

European Investment Bank Investment Survey 2020[103][104]

Some have noted that planned stimulus package could be designed to speed up renewable energy transitions and to boost energy resilience.[64] Researchers of the World Resources Institute have outlined a number of reasons for investments in public transport as well as cycling and walking during and after the pandemic.[105] Use of public transport in cities worldwide has fallen by 50-90%, with substantial loss of revenue losses for operators. Investments such as in heightened hygienic practices on public transport and in appropriate social distancing measures may address public health concerns about public transport usage.[106] The International Energy Agency states that support from governments due to the pandemic could drive rapid growth in battery and hydrogen technology, reduce reliance on fossil fuels and has illustrated the vulnerability of fossil fuels to storage and distribution problems.[107][108][109]

According to a study published in August 2020, an economic recovery "tilted towards green stimulus and reductions in fossil fuel investments" could avoid future warming of 0.3 °C by 2050.[72]

Secretary-general of the OECD club of rich countries José Ángel Gurría, called upon countries to "seize this opportunity [of the COVID-19 recovery] to reform subsidies and use public funds in a way that best benefits people and the planet".[78]

In March 2020, the ECB announced the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme.[110] Reclaim Finance said that the Governing Council failed to integrate climate into both the “business as usual” monetary policy and the crisis response. It also ignored the call from 45 NGO's that demanded that the ECB deliver a profound shift on climate integration at this decision-making meeting[111] This, as it also finances 38 fossil fuel companies, including 10 active in coal and 4 in shale oil and gas.[112] Greenpeace stated that (by June 2020) the ECB's covid-related asset purchases already funded the fossil fuel sector by to up to 7.6 billion.[113]

With the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak spreading rapidly within the European Union, the focus on the European Green Deal diminished. Some have suggested either a yearly pause or even a complete discontinuation of the deal. Many believe the current main focus of the European Union's current policymaking process should be the immediate, shorter-term crisis rather than climate change.[114] In May 2020 the €750 billion European recovery package, called Next Generation EU,[115][116] and the €1 trillion budget were announced. The European Green deal is part of it. One of the package's principles is "Do no harm". The money will be spent only on projects that meet some green criteria. 25% of all funding will go to climate change mitigation. Fossil fuels and nuclear power are excluded from the funding.[117]

In 2021, Joe Biden announced the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 on March 11, 2021.[118] He also announced the Build Back Better Plan.

Some sources of revenue for environmental projects – such as indigenous communities monitoring rainforests and conservation projects – diminished due to the pandemic.[119]

Despite a temporary decline in global carbon emissions, the International Energy Agency warned that the economic turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may prevent or delay companies and others from investing in green energy.[19][120][121] Others cautioned that large corporations and the wealthy could exploit the crisis for economic gain in line with the Shock Doctrine, as has occurred after past pandemics.[25]

The Earth Overshoot Day took place more than three weeks later than 2019, due to COVID-19 induced lockdowns around the world.[122] The president of the Global Footprint Network claims that the pandemic by itself is one of the manifestations of "ecological imbalance".[122][123]

Analyses and recommendations

Multiple organizations and organization-coalitions – such as think tanks, companies, business organisations, political bodies and research institutes – have created unilateral analyses and recommendations for investments and related measures for sustainability-oriented socioeconomic recovery from the pandemic on global and national levels – including the International Energy Agency,[124][106] the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and Environment[125] and the European Commission.[126][127][128][129][130] The United Nations' Secretary General António Guterres recommended six broad sustainability-related principles for shaping the recovery.[131]

According to a report commissioned by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy and published in July 2020, investment in four key ocean intervention areas could help aid economic recovery and yield high returns on investment in terms of economic, environmental and health benefits. According to Jackie Savitz, chief policy officer for America ocean conservation nonprofit Oceana, strategies such as "setting science-based limits on fishing so that stocks can recover, practicing selective fishing to protect endangered species and ensuring that fishing gear doesn't destroy ocean habitats are all effective, cost-efficient ways to manage sustainable fisheries".[132]


The pandemic has also impacted environmental policy and climate diplomacy, as the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference was postponed to 2021 in response to the pandemic after its venue was converted to a field hospital. This conference was crucial as nations were scheduled to submit enhanced nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement. The pandemic also limits the ability of nations, particularly developing nations with low state capacity, to submit nationally determined contributions, as they focus on the pandemic.[16]

Time highlighted three possible risks: that preparations for the November 2020 Glasgow conference planned to follow the 2015 Paris Agreement were disrupted; that the public would see global warming as a lower priority issue than the pandemic, weakening the pressure on politicians; and that a desire to "restart" the global economy would cause an excess in extra greenhouse gas production. However the drop in oil prices during the COVID-19 recession could be a good opportunity to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies, according to the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency.[133]

Carbon Tracker argues that China should not stimulate the economy by building planned coal-fired power stations, because many would have negative cashflow and would become stranded assets.[134]

The United States' Trump administration suspended the enforcement of some environmental protection laws via the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the pandemic. This allows polluters to ignore some environmental laws if they can claim that these violations were caused by the pandemic.[135]

Predicted rebound effect

The restarting of greenhouse-gas producing industries and transport following the COVID-19 lockdowns was hypothesized as an event that would contribute to increasing greenhouse gas production rather than reducing it.[136] In the transport sector, the pandemic could trigger several effects, including behavioral changes – such as more teleworking and teleconferencing and changes in business models – which could, in turn, translate in reductions of emissions from transport. A scientific study published in September 2020 estimates that sustaining such behavioral changes could abate 15% of all transport emissions with limited impacts on societal well-being.[68] On the other hand, there could be a shift away from public transport, driven by fear of contagion, and reliance on single-occupancy cars, which would significantly increase emissions.[137] However, city planners are also creating new cycle paths in some cities during the pandemic.[138] In June 2020 it was reported that carbon dioxide emissions were rebounding quickly.[139]

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recommends governments continue to enforce existing air pollution regulations during the COVID-19 crisis and after the crisis, and channel financial support measures to public transport providers to enhance capacity and quality with a focus on reducing crowding and promoting cleaner facilities.[137]

Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, states that "the next three years will determine the course of the next 30 years and beyond" and that "if we do not [take action] we will surely see a rebound in emissions. If emissions rebound, it is very difficult to see how they will be brought down in future. This is why we are urging governments to have sustainable recovery packages."[127]

Psychology and risk perception

The pandemic has changed people's views on the challenges facing their countries, as found in the European Investment Bank's climate survey 2020 - 2021. [140]

Chaos and the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may have made a catastrophic future seem less remote and action to prevent it more necessary and reasonable. However, it may also have the opposite effect by having minds focus on more immediate issues of the pandemic rather than ecosystemic issues such as deforestation.[141]

Impact on environmental monitoring and prediction

Weather forecasts

The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) announced that a worldwide reduction in aircraft flights due to the pandemic could impact the accuracy of weather forecasts, citing commercial airlines' use of Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay (AMDAR) as an integral contribution to weather forecast accuracy. The ECMWF predicted that AMDAR coverage would decrease by 65% or more due to the drop in commercial flights.[142]

Seismic noise reduction

Seismologists have reported that quarantine, lockdown, and other measures to mitigate COVID-19 have resulted in a mean global high-frequency seismic noise reduction of up to 50%. This study reports that the noise reduction resulted from a combination of factors including reduced traffic/transport, lower industrial activity, and weaker economic activity. The reduction in seismic noise was observed at both remote seismic monitoring stations and at borehole sensors installed several hundred metres below the ground. The study states that the reduced noise level may allow for better monitoring and detection of natural seismic sources, such as earthquakes and volcanic activity.[143]

See also


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