By Fleur Howe – Deputy & Environmental Editor
In light Boris Johnson’s recent announcement scrapping all Covid-19 precautions, we can now look back and reflect of the environmental impact the pandemic has had, and evaluate how this impacts us moving forward. With March 2020 seeing the world come to a virtual standstill for the first time ever, we saw both empty roads & empty shelves and their irrefutable impact the economy and environment, two sectors that cannot help but intervene with each other.
The initial lockdown saw a 7-8% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in Europe, which, despite being a seemingly small number, is the largest dip we have had and haven’t seen one since despite the following lockdowns. This decrease in emissions spanned beyond just Greenhouse gases, but also ranged to air pollutants and fossil fuels. This rapid reduction can be credited to reduced industrial activity, with 18.4% of global anthropogenic emissions attributable to industrial processes, and a fall of 6% in energy demand falling hand in hand. The same kind of reaction happened in the 2008 Global Financial Crisis with a 1.3 drop in emissions, highlighting how interconnected the environment is to industrial activity and, by extension, the economy. Whilst produce demands had risen and then fallen as people stockpiled to a record-breaking level, Cropland was mostly fixed with ammonia levels not changing; this suggesting that whilst greenhouse emissions are affected, ecosystems may not benefit in the same way from a reduction in economic activity.
With traffic and transport significantly dropping, the improvement in air quality globally was one of the most notable shifts. With the pollutant NO2 being amongst the emissions drop, this was mostly attributable to road transport, which we saw become one of the biggest changes to life during lockdown. NO2 emissions fell by a staggering 61% in Spain, and ranged from a 40-50% decrease in various other European countries. These figures at the time created an optimism regarding the potential for a reset. As well as an economic recovery, governments globally had a chance to use the lowered emissions as a baseline for growing a greener future, an idea coined as ‘Green Recovery’. Whilst we saw COP26 acknowledge the impact of the lockdowns, its lack of fixed plans, focus on empty promises, and goals haven’t created a stable plan for a sustainable future. In fact, to be on track with the original Paris Agreement, that drop would have to be reproduced for up to four decades, presenting little hope for the future plans laid out in COP26.
The short-term dips of emissions during lockdowns highlight how short-term change is just that; by the end of 2020, it became a 2-3% reduction in emissions before rising back to regular rates in the following years. Whilst I’m not suggesting it is feasible for society to live in lockdown in order for the environment to change, it certainly highlights the reality that drastic change is possible. Experts suggested it presented some hope that, should it be needed, rapid action could work.
Whilst the impact of the 2020 Lockdowns may have been temporary, it can be held as a resourceful base to understand the impact of daily life on greenhouse gas emissions and created a space to reflect on current industrial practices and expenditures. Whilst air pollution improved and emissions decreased, we equally saw the excessive growth of online shopping, as well as a sudden increased demand and deployment of single use plastic, in the forms of PPE and in takeaway containers as businesses closed in-person dining. With the economic repercussions of the pandemic still especially prevalent now, we should continue to assess how it is connected to the environment.