The first wave of the global pandemic brought hope for the recovery of nature and the environment amidst the long-term threat of environmental degradation. Positive trends observed include improvements in air quality and a decrease in noise pollution in cities facing lockdowns. In spring, daily global carbon emissions decreased by 17% compared to last year. Water quality has also improved with the decrease in commercial shipping and fishing creating a positive environment for the re-generation of aquatic life. For example, an improvement in surface water quality has been observed in China. Photos of wildlife returning to cities and cartoons of the re-birth of nature started to circulate on the internet. Such hopes, however, don’t seem to correspond with the realistic and long-term environmental consequences of the pandemic.
The most direct negative environmental impacts are covid related pollutants such as personal protective equipment — masks, plastic gloves, and detergent bottles. At the pandemic’s peak in Wuhan, the city’s hospitals produced over 240 tons of single-use plastic-based medical waste per day. Other covid related pollutants include plastic packaging used to home deliver goods and take-aways. Predictions see as much as 75% of pandemic plastics winding up as waste in the oceans and landfills.
In many countries, environmental regulations have been loosened or lifted to help economic activity. China is releasing more permits for long-term unsustainable infrastructure such as coal plants, and the oil and gas industry received a significant amount of public funds in the United States– all intending to ease the economic damage. By the end of summer 2020, the global emissions decrease had almost returned to pre-pandemic levels and air pollution levels rise back up as countries lift restrictions.
Governments and organizations are looking into measures reconciling economic recovery with sustainability. The United Nations urges governments and businesses to seek non-fossil fuel plastic substitutes and new regulations on international trade, which would not only help the environment but spur a labour market and investment opportunities in green manufacture and trade.