Covid-19: Environmental Hero or Hinderer?

The need for drastic change to protect our environment and tackle the climate crisis has become a particularly hot-topic in the last few years, accelerated by the likes of Sir David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg. But amidst the ongoing pandemic, it is easy to lose sight of our long term targets and forget our responsibilities. While we sit at home and isolate ourselves from the outside, will the disaster result in a positive effect on the environment, or will it make our goals that much harder to reach?

The imposed travel restrictions and decline in commuters has resulted in a significant decrease in pollution levels. My social media feed is littered with memes about dolphins appearing in Venice and Croydon transforming into a paradise; as amusing as these images are, they do highlight the heavy consequences of our holiday flights and drives to work. Globally, emissions have fallen as factories are forced to shut and the use of fossil fuels declines. Satellite images show this drop and some countries can see (and even feel) the clearer air. A permanent change could drastically improve the health of citizens and the environmental landscape.

Meanwhile, the waste produced as a result of the pandemic scares  me. The closure of the food industry has seen tonnes of food discarded and milk dumped in fields and drains. This may seem confusing when you're in the supermarket looking for milk and they’ve run out by 4pm, but the world is struggling to adapt and transition as quickly as the virus spreads.

Furthermore, the medical waste - materials and bodily fluids - generated as the number of patients admitted escalates must be discarded safely. New medical waste plants and waste treatment facilities have been constructed to deal with the used material. Personal protective equipment is vital for protecting front-line workers against Covid-19, but the expanded use of resources and the strain it has caused could have a lasting effect.

As I see my flatmate ploughing through disposable disinfectant wipes and hear her washing her hands for a little too long, I find myself wondering how I can do my part to help achieve our collective goals. We can do simple things, such as ensuring we buy the food that we need so as not to waste or be greedy, or we can try and take more considerable actions - maybe write to our university or our local government to push policy plans and call on them to enforce long-term changes.

Without a doubt, our world will transform significantly over the next few months - economically, politically, environmentally, etc. Will we come out of this disaster a more compassionate society, or will our desperation to return to economic stability reverse any positive environmental changes over the last few months for the worse?

Ryan Morris, NGM staff. Source: Sentinel-5P Satellite, data processed by Descartes Labs

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