Covid’s impact on the environment seems to have had both positive and negative effects: on the one hand, the lockdown brought a temporary cease in the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (especially in large industrialised cities), while, on the other hand, it provided some sectors with a chance to try and get around restrictions set out in pollution legislation.
The fact that many urban centres have benefited from the absence of vehicles on the roads (registering some of the lowest air pollution levels in 30 years) is significant. Nevertheless, analysis is currently limited to local situations and only once the pandemic is over will experts be able to say with any certainty whether the coronavirus has helped the climate or not.
The fall in emissions may slow Covid
According to some observers, it would seem that the coronavirus (like other pathogens) may use atmospheric pollution as a kind of fast track in order to spread more quickly. There are no sufficiently in-depth scientific studies available yet, but experts widely accept that the reduction of airborne particulate serves to significantly reduce expansion of the epidemic.
A reduction in smog and denser polluting particles may indirectly help combat Covid. Furthermore, an improvement in the weather and air quality provides an opportunity to alleviate the risks to particularly vulnerable groups, such as those suffering from cardio-respiratory problems, which are normally aggravated by the presence of pollutant matter.
Is lockdown sufficient to counteract climate change?
It has become apparent that pollution levels in the most industrialised areas of the world have fallen drastically during the lockdown period. We can therefore conclude that Covid’s impact on the environment has had positive results, leading to emission figures which are well below normal levels.
Unfortunately, however, these benefits would seem to be only temporary (therefore insufficient to resolve the problem of climate change which dates from the pre-industrial era). In order to really improve the current climate situation, strict restrictions on the use of fossil fuels and a combined effort by all the countries of the world would be required.
There is also another side to the effects of lockdown. Some US oil companies have used the emergency to put pressure on the government. With the excuse of easing their re-mergence from the economic crisis currently underway, they have requested the suspension of restrictions set out in anti-pollution legislation.
This extraordinary concession was granted, but it presents many unclear aspects. Firstly, no expiry date has been set for this agreement. This new legislation states that companies can ignore pollution restrictions provided that any violations are connected (directly or indirectly) with the pandemic. However, such circumstances are highly arbitrary and difficult to prove.
An indefinite extension of these concessions could destroy all efforts made so far to reduce damage to the environment and climate. A further consequence of these special permissions granted by the US authorities could also be a serious risk to citizens’ health.
Covid blocks COP26
Another indirect effect of Covid on climate is the postponement of COP26: the annual meeting of the United Nations on Climate Change, one of the most important international events addressing the issue of global pollution.
At this year’s event, scheduled to be held in Glasgow but currently postponed until 2021, the crucial points relating to the application of article 6 of the Paris Agreement were due to be discussed. Furthermore, the countries taking part had to present their individual national plans for emission recuction (NDCs).
As mentioned above, at the moment, it is particularly difficult to establish whether Covid’s impact on the environment should by classified as positive or negative; in any case, lockdown has clearly shown that, by making a drastic cut in emissions, it is still possible to save our climate.
Translated by Joanne Beckwith