Course:CONS200/2021/The Environmental Impacts of the Covid-19 Pandemic

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COVID-19 cases spread rapidly after its emergence in late 2019.

Since it first emerged in Wuhan, China in December of 2019[1] and was declared as a pandemic by World Health Organization that March[2], COVID-19 has had a huge impact on a global scale. An upwards of 100 million people have been infected and the disease has taken more than 2.5 million lives (as of March 2021)[3]. COVID-19 is a highly contagious, pneumonia like disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2[3] that can cause a range of symptoms. In the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases began to surge worldwide, many local and federal governments placed guidelines and restrictions to slow the spread of the disease, especially as hospitals were quickly reaching capacity. For many governments, these restrictions included stay-at-home orders, regulating individuals ability to leave their homes. Additionally, multiple businesses had their employees work remotely and multiple schools held their classes online. Measures such as these continued throughout 2019-2021, as global cases continued to soar higher every week.

Quarantines, lockdowns and stay-at-home orders greatly reduced human activity for an extended period of time while disease control changed the consumption and production priorities globally. The changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have not just had an impact on the human population, but it has also had a large and lasting impact on the planet. While some of these impacts are positive, such as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the remediation of natural habitats caused by the restriction of human movement, many negative environmental impacts have also emerged. Overall, COVID-19 has led to the prioritizing of human health over environmental heath, and while there have been some accidental positive impacts, most of these impacts are short-lasting while many of the negative impacts are long-term. In order to preserve the health and habitability of our planet, it is crucial that humans learn from the pandemic and make sustainable changes to their ways of life, because while short-term lockdowns have proven effective in reducing human impact to climate change, they can only last so long.

Impact on greenhouse gas emissions

Greenhouse Gas Emissions before Covid-19

Greenhouse gas emission is the main contributor to climate change, which in turns affect and changes the environment which we live in.

Life on Earth depends on the atmosphere, and so every components of the atmosphere are closely related to specific cycles and feedback loops in Earth's system. Human activities, like burning fossil fuels and improper land use, produces excess amounts of greenhouse gases that can potentially alter these natural cycles and thus change the balance of different gas components. The main greenhouse gasses (GHGs) include carbon dioxide, methane, and ozone. Ideally, these GHGs would create a greenhouse gas effect on the earth's surface by trapping heat radiated from the Earth's surface to maintain a certain temperature to support life on Earth. However, if there are too many GHGs in the atmosphere, these gases will trap too much heat, causing the temperature on Earth to rise[4].

Before Covid-19, the carbon dioxide level was 409.8 parts per million in 2019. This is 47% higher than pre-industrial times, and it is still rising at 2.3 ppm every year based on the current rates[5]. Many countries are starting to combat climate change by reducing their GHG emissions, yet it is a long path that will require radical actions for generations.

Greenhouse Gas levels during Covid-19

Covid-19, being a virus that could be potentially the result of deforestation and the destroy of natural habitat, had surprisingly positive impact on green house gas emissions. Due to lock-down restrictions, many people work from home. Industrial activities are also declining, reducing human activities all around the world. The green house gas emissions are found to be lower than pre-covid projections. The global carbon dioxide emissions fell by 7% in 2020, making it the highest drop on record, reported by the Global Carbon Project[6]. Specifically, lockdowns around the globe also means strict traffic restrictions and self-quarantine in most countries, which helped drop greenhouse gases that are mainly contributed by traffic, like nitrogen dioxide, by 20-50% on a city level[7].

There has been many specific case studies done to examine the effects of Covid-19 around the world. For example, as a major city in Egypt, Alexandria experienced a 33% decreased in nitrogen dioxide and a 5% drop in carbon emissions[8]. Furthermore, with "nearly half of China's population (over 780 million people) live in various forms of travel restrictions" during Lunar new year. China was found to have improved air "quality in the short term and significant contribution to global carbon emission reduction" due to decrease in consumption of coal, etc[9].

Reduction in traffic also brought a dramatic improvement in pollution and air quality in many major cities all around the world[10] due to reduction in nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter less than 2.5 μm in diameter (PM)[11]. This potentially saves many lives because it was estimated that close to 91% of the world's population are currently breathing in air that exceeds the World Health Organization(WHO)'s recommendations and poor air quality has caused an estimate of 4.2 million people's death each year[12]. Aside from all the benefits, it was also found that O3 concentrations increased by about 50%. This is believed to be caused by the lack of nitrogen oxide reduces the O3 consumption/titration levels which causes an increase of O3 concentrations[11].

Although these changes are very positive, it is important to notice that these changes are only short-term changes. As soon as the pandemic is over, various human activities, including traffic are expected to return to pre-covid levels and maybe even above and beyond pre-covid times since many countries would ramp up production to accommodate for their financial loss during Covid times[13]. In order to make these changes persist, long-term voluntary lifestyle and policy changes are required. This may include more use of public transport, use of renewable energy, and sustainable industrialization[14].

Impact on water pollution

Restoration of Waterbodies

Water is one of the most critical natural capital that all creatures depend on for survival. Water bodies, wether from natural sites or urban area, provide ecosystem with all sorts of services, and possess intrinsic values in our environment. During the pandemic, governments around the world have applied new social distancing measure and quarantine rules that significantly restricts population flow, inducing a dramatic reduction of tourists and human intervention of water bodies in recreation spaces such as beaches, parks, and gardens. While the consequent decrease of sediment agitation, greenhouse gases emission, and solid wastes produce are seen to improve water quality in various sites[15], less motorboats and fishing boats in water also allow water bodies to recover from overexploration and restore local faunal communities[16]. Since the enforcement of lockdown, beaches like Acapulco, Barcelona, and Salinas have shown significant improvement[17]. Water in Ganga, which was unfit even for bathing before due to total dissolved solid[18], is now suitable for bathing and propagation of wildlife and fisheries[19].

Swage Treatment Centre in Paris

Virus Spread and Water Contamination

While transmission of virus has normally taken the form of direct contact with other infected individuals or contaminated objects, it can also be found in bio-waste like faeces and urine[15]. Even though all designated medical institutions, temporary quarantine centres, and research institutions are stipulated to adhere to the “Water Pollution Discharge Standards for Medical Institutions,” the presence of corona virus at wastewater treatment plants have continually been reported by countries include India, Australia, Netherland, China, France, Spain, and United State[20]. The fact suggests the possibility for pathogen to be transported through effluent, further changing characteristics of other lives and soil when diffuses into the environment.

Besides the virus, overuse of sanitizer is another major source of water pollution that have shown impacts on both surface water and underground water systems. During the pandemic, large quantity of chloric sanitizer enters surface water with tail water from wastewater treatment plants or through rainwater pipe network from city sewer. This excessive emission threats local ecological security by killing not only harmful bacterias, but also beneficial microbes and animals. A recent case of which happens in Taiwan during the SARS epidemic in 2003. Due to over disinfection, excessive bleach are discharged into rivers and tributaries. The sudden increase of chlorine concentration caused the mortality of large quantity of freshwater fish, which does not recover until half a year later. The residual chlorine could also infiltrate into underground water through soil. Although being a relatively slow process, it can cause long lasting change of local soil environment. According to researcher in National Engineering Research Centre of Urban Environmental Pollution Control of China, excessive chloride ion could lead to various effects include soil acidification, destruction of soil structure, and forming of hardened and impervious earth surface[21].

Possible Remedial Approaches

To promote availability of clean water and minimize public exposure to wastewater, different strategies are introduced to governments and institutions. In countries without a centralized sewer connection, decentralized wastewater management can play a significant role. As an affordable, sustainable, and low maintenance option, decentralized treatment develops small scale purification infrastructures alternative to centralized sewer system[20]. By treating wastewater locally before they potentially being diffused, it decreases the virus load into environment and prevent possible secondary transmission.With the development of corresponding technology, sewage could also play a role in field of wastewater-based epidemiology, providing potential for early warning of disease transmission by tracing source of the virus and potential carriers, as well as epidemic surveillance[15].

The primary procedure for the inactivation of viruses in wastewater treatment in chemical or radiation disinfection[20]. While survival of viruses may be boosted with viral aggregation as well as restricted by temperature increase, presence of sunlight, and presence of indigenous microbial population, inactivation action should be processed with precise care. With decentralized management, incorporation of treatment system such as waste stabilization pond or lagoon may open the sewage governance with new approaches of treatment option. Such technology operate by reducing pathogen load under combined effects of long retention time, solar radiation, elevated pH, and microbial action, and has been reported to play a role in removal of virus in wastewater by more than 2 log units (99%)[20]. Through further introduction of environmental friendly virucidal options such as organic peroxides, quaternary ammonium compounds, ultraviolet irradiation, etc., we can be expected to achieve more viable and sustainable treatment results in the future.

Impact on waste production and waste management

Medical masks have become a huge source of waste during the COVID-19 pandemic

The Harm of Plastic Waste

Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, plastic pollution has had an increasing impact on global land, marine and freshwater ecosystems[22]. A wide range of environmental issues such as the threatening of animal populations, “soil erosion, deforestation, air pollution, and water pollution”[17] are all directly or indirectly caused by humans’ excessive production of plastic waste. Plastic's durability and low manufacturing cost have made it extremely useful for a multitude of things, but that durability has contributed to its harm to the environment[23]. Plastic has been manufactured on a mass scale since its emergence, leading to approximately 31.9 million metric tons of plastic added to the environment per year[24]. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the acceleration of solid waste consumption and production, especially among single-use plastics.

High Accumulation of Plastic Waste During COVID-19

The COVID-19 public emergency has amplified the demand of personal protection equipment such as gloves and medical masks among healthcare workers, social workers and the general public[25]. These single-use plastic items are necessary to combat COVID-19, for they are the most sanitary and safe option for personal protection equipment. It has been estimated that 89 million medical masks, 76 million examination gloves, and 1.6 million goggles are required monthly for the COVID-19 pandemic response[26]. During the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China, local hospitals produced a daily average of 240 metric tons of plastic-based medical waste[17]. The disposal of these increased numbers of personal protection equipment puts extra pressure on waste management. Moreover, many personal protection items have ended up on beaches and in oceans, making them more likely to break down into microplastics[23]. The effects of microplastics are not yet fully understood, but they are known to pose a threat to wildlife and human health and have been found in abundance in both marine and terrestrial ecosystems[23].

In addition to the demand of plastic personal protection items from medical facilities, consumption patterns have greatly changed since the pandemic began. Individuals panic-bought large quantities of products such as toilet paper, food, sanitizers, anti-bacterial cleaning products, masks, and gloves when the first word of COVID-19 began spreading and governments began implementing distancing measures. This surge of consumption increased the sales of these products in a single supermarket by 20%[27], ultimately leading to an increase in the disposal of single-use plastic items such as packaging and personal protection equipment. Furthermore, Industries taking advantage of the situation of human health being prioritized over environmental health repealed bans of disposable plastic shopping bags[17]. The stay-at-home orders put in place by local and national governments throughout 2019-2021 also had an impact on plastic consumption. The ability for many citizens to leave their homes was restricted by the government and many people took individual action by staying at home as well. This led to a boom in online shopping and food delivery out of both necessity and increased free time. Remote food delivery and shopping require excess single-use shipping packaging that is usually plastic or Styrofoam in addition to the original product packaging. Singapore’s 8-week lockdown, for example, led to the contribution of 1400 tons of plastic waste from packaged take-out meals and grocery delivery alone[25]. Overall, the household situations caused by the pandemic led to the generation of tons of plastic waste[27] putting pressure on existing waste management systems. This has led to many instances of strategy mismanagement within waste systems, including the practice of mobile incineration, direct landfills, and local burnings[25]. The incorrect disposal of these products often leads to plastics being misplaced into the environment, and once plastic is in the environment, it remains for hundreds to thousands of years as a risk to both environmental and human health[23]. This is why it is crucial that people are mindful of their use of single-use plastics and have effective and sustainable means of disposing it.

COVID-19 Impact on Waste Management/Recycling

For the preservation of the planet's natural resources and the reduction of pollution levels, the recycling and proper disposal of urban waste must be a priority[28]. However, as COVID-19 continued to spread at an increasing rate, the urgency to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to human waste/trash management being overlooked. Many cities halted or reduced their recycling programs for the protection of their workers from exposure to COVID-19[17] and cross-border movement was restricted during the pandemic, limiting the recycling ability of developing counties that depended on foreign recycling technologies[27]. These situations led to many plastic products being disposed as garbage rather than recycled. Additionally, during the pandemic, many businesses began opting for virgin plastic products, as they better protected human health from COVID-19 and recycled plastic prices were on the rise. The reduction of recycling made the environmental footprint of consuming plastic products much larger than prior to the pandemic, emphasizing the impact of the pandemic's increased plastic consumption.

Impact on natural habitats

Increased Wildlife Activity

Increased Wildlife Activity in National Parks.

Humans have adapted to be staying indoors during the pandemic. The “increased wildlife activity in national parks and urban green spaces [are presented] as people have remained indoors” [29]. The global pandemic has forbidden many people to go outside, forcing them to stay indoors. While people are staying indoors, the interactions between wildlife and humans lessened. Because humans are remaining indoors, wildlife has become more active outdoors. Wildlife is able to take a rest from the destructive human activity events. “In protected areas, declines in visitor numbers caused by travel restrictions and park closures have reduced stresses on sensitive animals and trampling pressure on popular trails”[30]. The pressure that humans give to wildlife has postponed due to the global pandemic. As people are restricted by travel restrictions, national parks allow the biodiversity to remain peaceful. “[T]here is evidence of reductions in wildlife-vehicle collisions in several states in the US”[29]. Because wildlife and the human community are temporarily separated, the chances of collision between humans and animals lessened. The deaths of animals because of vehicle collisions are limited during the global pandemic.

Increased Degradation and Exploitation

On the other hand, the reduced human presence in the wildlife can give rise to another issue. The reduced human presence in a natural area has contributed to the increased amount of degradation and exploitation of the natural habitats which threatens species to migrate or adapt[30][29]. As humans are restricted to stay indoors, their physical activities decrease. Therefore, they obtain skills such as farming, logging, or hunting which may harm the ecosystem. Humans seem to find new interests during their free time during the pandemic. “[R]eductions in enforcement and human presence in protected areas have contributed to a rise in illegal activities like logging and hunting”[29]. As people reduced physical activities, people become more involved with other activities which can bring them revenue and food sources. “Unemployment and mass migration as a result of the pandemic may result in added pressure on wildlife and habitats for food and livelihood by increased poaching, hunting, and logging”[31]. Food sources can be a problem for lower-class people that rely on their job income. If they become unemployed, they might have to collect food in the wild. This can result in the increase of human exploitation of nature. The exploitation of nature can potentially degrade nature and force animals to migrate to other areas where humans are not present. “[R]eports of wild species venturing into rural and urban areas, including parks and beaches, where they have not been seen for many years”[30]. When human’s activities affect biodiversity, many species are forced to relocate themselves. They might migrate into urban areas. This is an unusual phenomenon that has occurred during the pandemic.

Negative Impacts of Antibacterial Products

The pandemic has encouraged people to use masks, gloves, disinfectants, and many other antibacterial products. The excessive amounts of disinfectant that are used on roads, commercial, and residential areas can harm many beneficial species, which may result in an unbalanced ecosystem between beneficial and harmful species[32]. Chemicals in disinfectants can harm the environment. Although these products can protect humans, they create an excessive amount of waste and negative impacts on nature. “extensive use of disinfectants may kill non-targeted beneficial species, which may create ecological imbalance”[32]. It can potentially lead to an outcome where more non-beneficial species remain. The enormous number of masks used by humans create waste that is a big issue for our environment. “[H]aphazard use and disposal of disinfectants, mask, and gloves; and burden of untreated wastes continuously endangering the environment”[32]. These disposals of antibacterial products are un-recyclable waste. This is a long-lasting impact on the natural environment as long as the global pandemic is still occurring.

Transmission of Disease between Wildlife and Human

If the interaction between human community and the ecosystem occurs, there might be a chance of outbreaks of new diseases. “Widespread contact between human communities and wildlife… are prone [create] to new diseases”[33]. People who become unemployed during the pandemic may rely on different methods to obtain food sources from the wildlife. They might have to hunt in the wildlife, which can create a closer interaction between wildlife and humans, resulting in a chance of creating new diseases. “[A]nthroponotic transmissions of coronavirus strains from humans to wild animals have been reported”[31]. Humans might infect coronavirus to animals. Transmission between species can also occur if one species is affected. Species that are “more frequently [spreading] diseases to humans, such as bats, rodents, and birds,” are favoured[33]. Evolution due to natural selection might occur. Evolution is acting on species to change their compositions based on their possibilities to be infected. One's fitness (their reproductive success and their ability to adapt to new environment) may differ.


In conclusion, the reduction in GHG emissions and remediation of natural habitats caused by the COVID-19 pandemic response are not expected to persist and there are multiple negative environmental impacts such as increased plastic waste and water contamination that are long-term and challenging to manage[34]. However, society can learn from the pandemic response for future conservation efforts. The situations brought about by COVID-19 to slow the spread of the virus have been an eye opener for just how adaptive people can be, and how the current so-called normal way of life doesn't have to be the norm. Many businesses have realized that working remotely is a promising possibility for the future while many individuals have realized they don't need to take a plane ride or a long trip to find an adventure. These simple changes have the ability to combat rising GHG emissions that have a direct impact on climate change, an urgent issue that has proven difficult to limit. The pandemic has displayed the importance of leadership and good policies to combat societal issues and the effectiveness of taking collective action to make real differences. These important lessons can be employed in the fight against climate change[35], as there is currently a very individualized approach being used that is unlikely to make real change. Additionally, post-COVID economic recovery actions fit well with fundamentals of combating climate change since both requires new innovations, technologies, broad ranges of different skills, and the capacity to organize work projects all around the world, from urban to rural settings[35]. On some level, COVID-19 has given society the skills that it requires to ensure the health and habitability of the planet, blazing a trail for environmental recovery and effective action against climate change.


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Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Anson Pao, Abigayle Wright, Rebecca Zhang, Ruiyi Zhu. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.