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Is COVID-19 having a positive environmental impact?

COVID-19 is impacting our lives and our world in ways we could not have predicted. The environmental impacts of this virus, both positive and negative, are likely to be relevant for many years to come.

Our world is changing with COVID-19 and we are all quickly adapting to life indoors, with limited travel and minimal time spent outside of our homes. However, as this situation unfolds, some have begun to ask whether this is the environmental wake up call the world needs.

As with everything, statements such as these are not clear cut and there are many things to consider. Even though there has been a reduction in CO² emissions due to severely limited flights, vehicle use and reduced factory operations, we must disregard the myth that dolphins are returning to the Venice canals. In crises, we tend to look for positive news to make us feel better about a difficult situation. We want to create silver linings to detract from our gloom by believing that animals are returning to places they haven't been seen in years and that the waters of Venice are clear again. This only continues the gross spread of misinformation, which for climate-related events, can be disastrous.

Good is occurring: we are driving less and walking more; there is less consumption of material goods because the shops are closed; we spend more time with our families and loved ones and take a break from our everyday rat race. But, while it’s important to acknowledge these beneficial changes for the environment, we have to be careful about getting too far ahead of ourselves. How long will these changes last, and how permanent will they be?

History suggests that COVID-19 will result in some environmental alteration. Such changes have occurred before: in particular the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. However, the drop in emissions that occurred during this crisis didn’t last long and was followed by a significant rise in emissions as the world rushed to rebuild industries[1]. In fact, global CO² emissions reached 9.1 billion tonnes in 2010, the highest ever recorded at the time[1]. Developing countries suddenly had a chance to become emerging economies and this led to even higher rates of carbon dioxide being released from factories and agriculture[1].

COVID-19 will likely follow similar patterns of the global financial crisis and result in a steep rise in emissions once again. Air travel will jump drastically and cars will be out on the road again. However, this time around we have no room for a further increase in carbon emissions. We are all sitting here marvelling at the reduction in CO², but we should be rallying to keep it that way. At the end of the day, we have no idea how long the pandemic will last and what the impact will be.

What we need to learn from COVID-19 is how to implement lasting change. Despite many years of obvious environmental destruction and loss of lives associated with climate change, it has been very hard to achieve any major change. When this corona-virus hit, it demonstrated how quickly people, governments, and big businesses can respond to a crisis when it’s immediately threatening our lives (and livelihoods). Our global reduction in carbon burning activities is undoubtedly resulting in positive environmental impacts, but we need to make sure they stay that way. This starts by thinking about the small changes we’ve made in our daily lives over the past few weeks that have resulted in this impact. It ends by governments and nations committing to concrete, sustainable goals to create deeper structural change in the way we live on this earth . We have an opportunity now to create long lasting changes not only for the environment, but for ourselves. It will be interesting to see how we respond to the wake up.

[1] Peters, G. P., Marland, G., Le Quéré, C., Boden, T., Canadell, J. G., & Raupach, M. R. (2012). Rapid growth in CO 2 emissions after the 2008–2009 global financial crisis. Nature climate change, 2(1), 2-4.

Sahmay is studying a Bachelor of Science majoring in Environmental Science at AUT. She is very fond of native plants and spends her spare time hiking and trying to figure out which berries and mushrooms she can consume without dying.

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