Student Story: The One Winner During COVID-19 Pandemic: The Environment

Commentary By: Nardeen Saleep, Egg Harbor Township High School Communications Academy

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe, just about every country has seen its negative effects one way or another. With schools and colleges switching to online learning, businesses urging employees to work from home, and national curfews being put in place, the effects of this pandemic are glaringly obvious. However, the one effect that people are not concerned with may just be the most long-lasting one, and that is the substantially positive impact on the environment.

Due to the rapidly warming climate, environmental scientists have predicted that, without further action, the environment will be in a catastrophic state by the year 2040, with increased wildfires and droughts, increased animal extinctions, and more. However, this is all preventable if people take steps to reduce their carbon footprints, which is exactly what the COVID-19 epidemic has forced them to do. On top of a sharp decrease in driving, air travel has decreased dramatically and some industrial activity has been put on hold. Considering transportation makes up roughly 23% of global carbon emissions and industrial activity, such as manufacturing and construction, makes up about 18.4% of global anthropogenic emissions, the decrease in these activities has helped the environment tremendously.

Understandably, the largest reduction in air pollution has occurred in countries significantly affected by COVID-19, such as Italy and China. In fact, NO2 levels in the air have dropped by 35% and 40% in China and Italy, respectively. Furthermore, greenhouse gas emissions as a whole have seen a 25% decrease in China as people use less transportation and factories shutter. In Italy, the canals that are usually dark and murky, yet attract thousands of tourists every year, have cleared up to an astonishing level. The U.S. has also experienced tremendous environmental impact in one of its most affected states: New York. Satellite images show that pollution levels in New York are down by 50% compared to this time last year due to efforts to contain the coronavirus. 

Although the environment has been improving significantly, there is no telling what will happen after this pandemic is over and everyone returns to their normal lives. However, there are three possible outcomes. 

First, people could see the effects their actions can have on the environment and become inspired to pursue sustainability in their daily lives, thus, continuing to lower greenhouse gas emissions and improving the environment. Another possibility, and unfortunately a more likely one, is that people will return to their daily lives without making any changes. Whether they see the impacts of their actions and do not care or simply do not find out about the environmental effects of the coronavirus whatsoever, it is possible that this will have no impact on their future routines. 

The third, and most dangerous, possibility is that people will want to make up for lost time. Due to having to cancel travel plans, spring break trips, concerts, and more fun events, people may feel the need to go out and participate in these activities as soon as the pandemic subsides, which would be detrimental to the environment. Not only would the state of the environment go back to the way it was, it could get even worse as travel and transportation increase and people stop worrying about sustainability and become more wasteful. 

Environmental scientists and activists compare climate change to the coronavirus epidemic in that, in both cases, rapid action is required if the issue is to be halted before causing any more harm than it already has. The rapid response of many countries to attempt to slow the spread of this virus gives environmentalists hope that, if treated urgently, it is possible to enact strict regulations which can slow or even reverse climate change. “Only in hindsight will we really understand what we gambled on and what we lost by not acting early enough,” Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology said. Therefore, if this pandemic is to teach the world anything, it is that anything is possible if everyone puts in just a little bit of effort – a vital lesson in dealing with climate change.