Nature & Conservation / Asia Wide

The environmental impacts of COVID-19: A closer look

by Gwyneth Cheng
Length 8 min

Each day, we wake up to a dreaded reality. COVID-19 has etched itself into every aspect of our lives, changing the way we behave and creating new normals. Since news of the coronavirus was first announced in January, its horrors have not stopped. The number of cases worldwide is still rising, and its death toll is appallingly high.

Despite this, a glimmer of hope recently caught our attention—images of clear skies and returning wildlife dominated headlines for months, giving us a new narrative amidst tragedy: our environment is recovering because of COVID-19.

How did this happen?

As of late April 2020, a third of the world is in partial or full lockdown. Some of the biggest lockdowns are in population-dense Asia, with India effectively restricting 1.3 billion people to their homes. 

Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in much lower levels of domestic and international transport. The reduction in demand for transportation and most goods and services, coupled with the closure of most public places, has caused a drop in energy and oil consumption throughout the region.

Methodology note: Location accuracy varies from region to region, so it is not recommended to use this data to compare changes between countries or regions.

We know how this works—transportation and industrial processes contribute to 23 percent and 18.4 percent of global carbon emissions, so cutting down on these activities drastically decreases emissions.

A case in point: international flights leaving mainland China decreased by 70 percent and domestic flights by 65 percent from 5 to 19 February. This reduction alone is estimated to have contributed to an 11 percent reduction in global carbon emissions.

Productivity at China’s six biggest power plants also fell by an astonishing 40 percent compared to late 2019, resulting in a large decrease in nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere above.

The environmental impacts of COVID-19: A closer look
The environmental impacts of COVID-19: A closer look

Pictured: Nitrogen dioxide concentrations over China. Nitrogen dioxide is a poisonous gas emitted by vehicles, power plants, and industrial activities.

More sensationally, people living in Punjab, India, were finally able to see the Himalayan mountain range for the first time in 30 years, after mass stay-at-home restrictions relieved some of the country’s smothering air pollution.

News like this has provided some relief to the gloomy mood around the coronavirus crisis. Still, concluding that the pandemic is beneficial for the environment seems too hasty at this point.

To analyse the true environmental impacts of COVID-19, we’ll have to take a closer look.

A subtle shift

Despite empty streets and deserted roads, let’s not be mistaken—human activity has not stopped entirely. Our activity has merely moved indoors, causing domestic household electricity usage to rise.

In Singapore, the increased use of air conditioners during our hottest months is common: the average household uses 7 percent more energy between April and August. Before the pandemic, an average four-room HDB household’s energy usage contributed 1.8 tonnes of carbon emissions per year, which requires at least 90 rainforest trees to absorb.

With mass stay-at-home orders issued as we approached the hottest period of 2020, households were predicted to have used more electricity—an extra six hours used each weekday would cause an estimated 20 percent increase in monthly energy consumption. Across the globe, this increase in energy demand will contribute its fair share to global carbon emissions.

A load of rubbish

But environmental impact isn’t merely measured in carbon emissions. Therein lies the problem—unlike clear blue skies, a growing mountain of plastic waste isn’t quite as visible to us.

Understandably, surgical mask usage has risen during the crisis, and global production has been ramped up to meet the surge in demand. These masks are made with non-woven polypropylene, a more eco-friendly type of plastic, making masks more durable and hence reusable. Unfortunately, surgical masks are meant as single-use items, so they get thrown away quickly.

Other plastic personal protective equipment (PPE), such as goggles, gloves, and body suits, are also swiftly disposed of and incinerated after use for safety reasons.

Methodology note: The survey was conducted across 26 countries from February to May 2020, with 27,000 respondents per week.

In a global health crisis, these are necessities, but the overwhelming increase in single-use plastic consumption compounds the waste problem. E-commerce activity has spiked, as consumers order everything they can’t buy outside.

Delivered products pile up waste fast. In China, packaging material accounted for 9.4 million tonnes of waste in 2018. This is likely to hit 41.3 million tonnes by 2025—without accounting for the surge in packaging demand during the pandemic.

Methodology note: Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular.

Outside the Internet, more of us are opting for takeaway food for convenience and the lack of sitting spaces in eateries outside. In March, there was a 51 percent decrease in the number of surveyed Singaporeans who ate out. The city of Bangkok in Thailand currently produces 27 percent more plastic waste compared to before the pandemic—an additional 1,700 tonnes a day.

In Southeast Asia especially, plastic waste is a beast we have yet to conquer. Dense populations and poor recycling rates mean an enormous amount of plastics are disposed of as trash, and the manufacturing and incineration of plastics release a dreadfully high level of emissions. Moreover, on its way to landfills, almost 3 percent of plastic waste worldwide ends up in rivers and oceans. This seems like a small percentage, but it amounted to eight million tonnes of waste in 2010.

Our consumption habits were highly unsustainable even before the coronavirus hit. COVID-19 has just made a bad situation much worse.

Looking ahead

The clearer skies from the pandemic has caused related news about COVID’s positive environmental effects to dominate headlines. Unfortunately, this hides a deeper truth that involves several less obvious factors.

While an increase in PPE waste and household energy usage is expected, consumption of both single-use plastics and household electricity has increased at an unnecessarily fast pace. This issue is less discussed, however, since global populations have long gotten used to unsustainable norms of consumption. In a time when our daily movements are restricted, the need for greater convenience predictably leads to a surge in resource use, which we’ve quickly normalized.

We have a glimpse of what our future may look like. In Singapore, as people get used to the convenience of online shopping, 76 percent of surveyed locals admitted that they are likely to continue buying most of their items online, even after the pandemic.

On a larger scale—China, looking to restart its economy, is making electricity usage a marker for overall productivity. This has resulted in reports of Chinese cities making it compulsory for factories to use more electricity than they need, just to meet quotas for energy consumption.

If other societies follow the same pattern, then the outcome is clear. Any positive environmental impact we observe now will not be sustained, but negative impacts are likely to be—which will return our consumption habits to a worse state than before.

For decades, climate change has been the world’s most urgent issue; COVID-19 is only a reminder of how fast things can go badly. Life isn’t easy during a lockdown, but environmental action has always required conscious effort that goes beyond our comfort zones, and especially from those who can afford to be environmentally conscious during the current crisis.

It would be remiss of us not to use the lessons learned from the pandemic in our response to climate change. If returning back to normal is not an option, perhaps the best hope we can find in our present situation is this: There is no better time for change than now.