COVID-19 and Its Effect on the Environment and Climate Change
Updated: Apr 28
What is the COVID-19 pandemic?
According to WHO, a pandemic is a worldwide spread of a new disease, where most people do not have immunity yet. Humans have lived through several pandemics in this lifetime, such as the black plague (1346-1353), smallpox (1870-1874), cholera (1821-1824), Spanish flu (1918-1920), SARS (2002-2004), etc., and the most recent one which we are also currently fighting, the COVID-19 pandemic.
A pandemic starts when a disease originates from a highly contagious virus, making it easy to transfer between people. If a person is infected, they can easily transmit the virus through bodily fluids from coughing, sneezing, skin shedding, even from simple interactions such as talking and touching surfaces. Without quarantine and isolation, the virus can spread quickly and easily, causing everyone to be at high risk of infection.
In the 21st century, where the world is at a non-stop pace of land, sea, and air travel, viruses spread in an exponential growth in a short amount of time, which was the case for the COVID-19 disease. Even before this disease was declared a pandemic, the media and governments promptly spread information, forcing multiple lockdowns and quarantines to be implemented across the globe to prevent further virus spread. However, unfortunately, many people are still ignorant about this issue.
What is climate change, and what causes it?
Weather changes occur in short periods, for example, when it is warm in the afternoon but cold at night. Climate change is the long-term change in weather over a particular place, which usually takes hundreds of years to change. The earth’s climate has been changing ever since it formed. It has gone through warm and cold periods, which have lasted hundreds or even millions of years.
Natural processes and human influences are the primary causes of climate change. These factors alter the climate through their cooling or warming effects on the earth. Natural processes range from solar radiation fluxes, earth’s tectonic movement, volcanoes, and earth’s orbital route or distance from the sun. On the other hand, humans influence the climate by emitting greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere and creating a greenhouse effect on the planet. This influence is also called anthropogenic influence, including fossil fuel burning, land use, industry processes, and deforestation.
So, if it is natural for the climate to change, why should we worry about it? The earth is currently at its warming period, and as mentioned above, it is supposed to take hundreds of years for it to process. However, due to the rapid increase of anthropogenic activities since the industrial revolution, human activities have sped up the warming process at a dangerous rate, referred to as the global warming crisis.
As greenhouse gasses are emitted into the atmosphere, the heat gets trapped inside the earth, known as the greenhouse effect. In the last 50 years, the rate of global surface temperature increase has nearly doubled, which affects the current climate by unpredictable weather patterns, rising sea levels, and impacting the ecosystem negatively.
What impact does the pandemic have on the environment and climate change?
It is no doubt that the pandemic is a major crisis to humanity and health, but how did it impact the earth, and how is it related to climate change?
Let’s start with the positive impacts. The COVID-19 pandemic forced a sudden stop for some major emission emitters, especially traffic pollution. Governments implemented restrictions on workplaces and tourism worldwide, which are the biggest contributors to air pollution.
During the pandemic, the sky and oceans are visibly cleaner, and the air quality in major cities has also improved dramatically. These are results from an overall slowdown in human activities, ranging from a drop in global air & land traffic and workplace restrictions.
These improvements helped the restoration of several ecosystems which were previously disturbed by external factors. Marine ecosystems that were harmed by contaminants in the water and tourism spots were cleaner because fewer people were littering.
But the most significant impact on the climate was that it unconsciously reduced a significant amount of greenhouse gases to be emitted into the atmosphere. Even though this slowdown in activity is relatively small compared to the last 100 years, where humans have been devastating the climate, its impact is still worth noting.
Although transportation emissions reduced significantly, other industries are still emitting large numbers of greenhouse gasses. With the pandemic being a health crisis, hospitals have been very busy around the world treating patients, which results in an abundance of biomedical waste. Without proper disposal procedures, medical waste contaminates its surrounding ecosystems and leaves major carbon emissions and landfill footprints.
Moreover, the pandemic has influenced climate change policies such as environmental regulations to be more relaxed as authorities are focusing on treating the health crisis, so monitoring the disposal of waste has not been as strict.
Other than medical waste, there has also been an increase in plastic use from the food industry due to the stay-at-home policy, which led to more consumers ordering take-out food, recycling less, and retailers being more oblivious towards single-use packaging.
As we know, plastic is one of the main contributors to climate change due to its long-life cycle, which requires hundreds of years to degrade, resulting in a large amount of plastic waste causing landfill and marine clogging and contamination.
Besides the greenhouse gas emissions from biomedical and plastic waste, other negative impacts of the pandemic to our ecosystem include extensive use of disinfectant and chlorine which may create an ecological imbalance.
What can we do?
This pandemic has taught us how a slowdown in anthropogenic activities can drastically impact our current global climate state. It also showed us what an urgent crisis feels like. It is important to understand better and take action about an issue before it becomes an urgent crisis. In this case, we have to understand the sources and types of greenhouse gasses, causes, impacts, and how to reduce global warming before it is too late. Human society should work together as a whole, spreading awareness and knowledge to save the world. NASA has created a website where we can see constant updates on the earth’s climate and atmosphere emission levels, including other information to keep ourselves educated on this issue through this link.
The pandemic has slowed down human activities globally, which already helped significantly reduce emissions to the atmosphere. We should keep persisting to these environmentally-friendly changes during this pandemic and adapting to keep reducing emissions to the atmosphere even after the pandemic has ended. Considering our current climate state, we do not have to change the way we live on the whole. Things such as switching to public transportation, recycling habits, and overall being more environmentally aware and friendly, no matter how small, can and will make an impact.
Climate change has impacted several ecosystems and species heavily; some are even on the verge of extinction, such as orangutans. To make matters worse, some authorities and industries have been ignoring this issue and are still destroying their natural habitat. It all starts from there and comes to us in the end. However, some organizations have stepped up their efforts to fight against climate change. We can sign petitions to stop destructive activities and also donate to lend a hand.
Olivia Eugenia is an Environmental Science student at the University of Western Australia. She is also an activist and a content writer at the International Youth Organization for Peace and Sustainability.