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Covid-19 and impacts on the environment: not just air quality

Updated: Aug 3, 2021

The ongoing pandemic and consequent restrictions established to fight the spread of the disease have provided some positive short-term impacts on the European environment.

Positive short term impacts, and also probably temporary, have been observed on the levels of noise pollution which have, with no doubt, been affected by the restrictions on circulation and the performance of activities during the months of lockdown. However, the effects of noise on health appear when exposure is long-term; therefore, a reduction in noise levels within a few months would not significantly reduce the indicator used to measure the effects of noise, unless the responses implemented lead to long-term reductions in traffic levels, air transport and other noisy activities.

Greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector, one of the primary sources of air pollution, is significantly affected by the crisis. The demand for passenger transport has decreased due to restrictions on international travel and the reduction in commuting, tourism and business travel. The International Road Transport Union expects a 57% decline in the turnover of road passenger transport in Europe for 2020 compared to the previous year; for air transport, data from the International Air Transport Association shows a 65.2% drop from the beginning of the 2020 to July compared to the same period in 2019: these figures indicate a significant decline in gas emissions greenhouse from transport in 2020.

As for the energy sector, the first estimates of the International Energy Agency say that global energy demand was set to decrease by 5% in 2020, energy-related CO2 emissions by 7% and energy investments by 18% .

However, the reduction in anthropogenic emissions due to confinement measures will not have a visible effect on the global average of atmospheric carbon dioxide in 2020, as this reduction will be less than, or at most similar, to the natural variability observed from year to year. This is what emerges from the recent analyzes of the World Meteorological Organization, which still detected record levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere despite the lockdowns of the last year.

But this emergency is showing clear negative signs on other aspects, such as the increased consumption of single-use plastic packaging and products, as a result of lockdown measures in most of Europe, along with strict hygiene requirements. The pandemic has led to a sudden increase in the global demand for personal protective equipments; at the start of the emergency, the World Health Organization estimated the need for 89 million medical masks globally each month, along with 76 million examination gloves and 1.6 million sets of glasses.

Many restaurants have switched to offering take-away and delivery services using single-use plastic containers. Several large coffee retailers have stopped allowing customers to carry reusable containers, using disposable cups in their place. Meanwhile, online shops have seen a surge in demand, with many products packaged in single-use plastic.

Although disposable plastic products have played an important role in preventing the spread of the disease, in the short term, the increased demand for these items could hold back the EU's efforts to combat plastic pollution and switch to a more sustainable and circular plastic system.

However, there are also other factors related to the current emergency that impact on this aspect: the reduction in economic activity has seen a sharp drop in global oil prices and this has made it significantly cheaper to produce plastic items from fossil fuels rather than using recycled plastics.

Studies point to Covid-19 as a disease passed from animals to humans. The emergence of such zoonotic pathogens is linked to environmental degradation and related human interaction with animals in the food system. About 60% of human infectious diseases are, in fact, of animal origin. Three-quarters of new and emerging infectious diseases are transmitted to humans by animals.

New viruses have emerged from intensive domestic livestock farming systems. More than 50% of zoonotic infectious diseases that have emerged since 1940 have been associated with intensive farming.

The lockdown period, then, gave us a glimpse of how animal and plant species react to less human disturbance, both in rural and urban settings. During the European lockdown, less disruption in urban and remote areas (less recreational tourism) has given ecosystems and habitats a chance to recover and has provided new spaces and niches for species to occupy.

From all this, emerges the urgent need to address environmental challenges, protect not only the environment but also the health and well-being of our society. The management of this emergency is an important opportunity to learn from and guide our choices for the future.


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