Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the environment

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

The worldwide disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in numerous impacts on the environment and the climate. The severe decline in planned travel[2] has caused many regions to experience a drop in air pollution. In China, lockdowns and other measures resulted in a 25 per cent reduction in carbon emissions[3] and 50 percent reduction in nitrogen oxides emissions,[4] which one Earth systems scientist estimated may have saved at least 77,000 lives over two months.[5][6] However, the outbreak has also provided cover for illegal activities such as deforestation of the Amazon rainforest[7][8] and poaching in Africa,[9][10] hindered environmental diplomacy efforts,[11] and created economic fallout that is predicted to slow investment in green energy technologies.[12]


Up to 2020, increases 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.[13][14] In various forms, human activity caused environmental degradation, an anthropogenic impact.[citation needed]

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.[15]

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.[16][17]

Researchers and officials have also called for biodiversity protections to form part of COVID-19 recovery strategies[18][19].

Air qualityEdit

TROPOMI data shows the NO2 levels in China at the beginning of 2020. Image from Earth Observatory.

Due to the coronavirus outbreak's impact on travel and industry, many regions and the planet as a whole experienced a drop in air pollution.[4][20][21] Reducing air pollution can reduce both climate change and COVID-19 risks[22] 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 coronavirus, such as quarantines and travel bans, resulted in a 25 per cent reduction of carbon emission in China.[3][6] 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.[6] One Earth systems scientist estimated that this reduction may have saved at least 77,000 lives.[6] 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.[23] 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.[24]

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

NASA and 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%.[4][25][26] NASA uses a 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.[27] 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.[4] During this festival, factories and businesses were closed for the last week of January to celebrate the lunar year festival.[28] 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.[29]

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.[4] 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.[4] It is yet to be investigated what COVID-19 control measures are most efficient controlling virus spread and least socioeconomic impact.[4]

Water qualityEdit

In Venice, the water in the canals cleared and experienced greater water flow and visibility of fish.[30] The Venice mayor's office clarified that 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.[31]


Demand for fish and fish prices have both decreased due to the pandemic,[32] and fishing fleets around the world sit mostly idle.[33] 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.[32] As of April 2020, signs of aquatic recovery remain mostly anecdotal.[34]

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.[35]

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."[9][10] On the other hand, Gabon decided to ban the human consumption of bats and pangolins, to stem the spread of zoonotic diseases, as the novel coronavirus is thought to have transmitted itself to humans through these animals.[36]

Deforestation and reforestationEdit

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.[7][8] 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[37] – over the span of 5 years.[38]

Retail and food productionEdit

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.[39]


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.[40]

Research and developmentEdit

Despite a temporary decline in global carbon emissions, the International Energy Agency warned that the economic turmoil caused by the coronavirus outbreak may prevent or delay companies and others from investing in green energy.[12][41][42] However, extended quarantine periods have boosted adoption of remote work policies.[43][44]

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.[45]


The pandemic has also impacted environmental diplomacy 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, with enhanced ambition. The pandemic also limits the ability of nations, particularly developing nations with low state capacity, to submit nationally determined contributions, as they are focusing on the pandemic.[11]

Time argued for 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 coronavirus recession could be a good opportunity to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies, according to the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency.[46]

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.[47]

Predicted rebound effectEdit

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.[48] 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. 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.[49] However, city planners are also creating new cycle paths in some cities during the pandemic.[50]

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.[51]

See alsoEdit


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External linksEdit