Green Pea’s Director of Operations and volunteer writer, Zoe MacBean, speaks about the environmental implications of Covid-19.
For many of us 2020 has been a very challenging year with a complete loss of normality as we have been told to stay at home for months on end. Despite the numerous challenges we have faced this year COVID -19 has also had an effect on our global climate – some good and some bad, a few of which I aim to outline here.
Although there have been many good things that have happened for the environment as a result of the pandemic, I think we need to understand the most negative impacts of it. To protect our frontline workers, we have needed to supply Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) but unfortunately this has come at a cost as PPE is mainly made of single use plastic. The equipment used is short term and comes in large volumes in order to ensure that staff are safe. The equipment can harm animals once discarded into the natural world and create large plastic deposits in oceans, which are not aesthetically pleasing and will be very negative for the planet. Face masks can take up to 450 years to decompose with many eventually making their way into the food chain as micros plastics during the decomposition process (Waste free oceans 2020). The World Health Organisation estimated in March 2020 that 89 million masks, 76 million gloves and 1.6 million pairs of goggles were going to be produced globally each month. The lack of disposability means that much of this PPE is going to end up in the natural world and have a negative effect on the environment (WHO 2020).
Not only has staying at home given us more time to focus on work and ourselves, we have turned our attention to online shopping. Amazon, the global brand which has made itself a household name, has increased its sales by 26% compared to the same time last year. This is as a result of people not having access to in person shops and extra time on their hands (Guardian 2020). By the end of the year amazon is predicted to exceed $100 billion in turnover (CNBC 2020), which is an important indication of the increase in online shopping during the pandemic. The associated increased packaging and emissions that come with online shopping is massively damaging for the planet. The delivery emissions will play a role in global warming due to a massive increase in shipping and a growing number of delivery drivers being employed to guarantee a good service. This is demonstrated by a 15% increase in emissions equivalent to 51.17 metric tonnes in 2019 for Amazon (Bloomberg 2020). Emissions are likely to have increased this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic which will accelerate the rate of global warming.
However, COVID-19 has bought about a few positive changes for the environment. The most obvious positive is the fact that our carbon footprints and personal emission levels reduced dramatically as we shut down on a global scale. The combined forces of national lockdowns, travel bans and closure of manufacturing sites have caused global emissions to drop by 4.6%, equivalent to 2.5 gigatonnes. Daily global CO2 emissions decreased by –17% in March and April (–11 to –25% for ±1σ) compared with the mean 2019 levels (Le Quéré et al 2020). This is really positive as it means that during the period in which we were locked down we reduced our contributions to global emissions and were reducing global warming by not releasing greenhouse gases at such a high rate. While the biggest reductions were seen in the USA and China the UK didn’t use coal power for two months and ran off mostly renewable energy (Independent 2020). This an incredibly positive step and shows that if we can each work harder to reduce our own consumer footprint society can run on cleaner energy and become less dependent on fossil fuels into the future.
One of the most important positives for me was the dramatic reduction in the aviation industry. This year many of us couldn’t head off on our usual holiday, business trips were cancelled, and unnecessary flying was stopped. COVID – 19 showed us that much of what we thought was essential travel really wasn’t and pretty much everything can be done from home. A sharp decline in airline passenger revenues of $314 billion in 2020 due to COVID-19 was equivalent to a 55% decrease when compared to 2019 revenues, and demonstrates the extent of reductions in the aviation industry. The IATA regional passenger demand, passenger capacity and net profit 2020 forecast is showing a 54.7 decrease in emissions, albeit with a loss of 84.3 billion dollars in trade. (Willis towers Watson 2020). This is a clear indication that a reduction in the aviation industry has led to a direct decrease in the amount of emissions into the atmosphere, which will have a long term positive effect on maintaining climate equilibrium.
Ultimately, this has been a very challenging year. However, we have to stay focused on the positives for the planet: we have reduced our emissions, allowed nature to have a small period of recovery, paved the way for a more sustainable future through the increased use of renewable fuels and changed our living habits to be less demanding on transport and ultimately the planet. And don’t forget that every small change counts so if you want to build on these successes and live a more sustainable lifestyle then you can start by supporting Green Pea based at Loughborough University where you can pick up sustainable products which are affordable to any student.
Le Quéré et al (2020) – https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-020-0797-x
Waste free oceans (2020) – https://www.wastefreeoceans.org/post/plastic-masks-take-450-years-to-decompose-in-nature
Featured header image by Annabel Smith.