Over the last few months, our world has undergone drastic changes in our lifestyles and economy due to the spread of the novel COVID-19 virus. With people making efforts to stay home and social distance, there has been a decrease in traffic, air travel, shopping, and many other activities. And as always, our environment is affected by these changes.
Globally, COVID-19 has impacted the environment in both positive and negative ways:
Now, on one hand, the fear of spreading the virus through cross-contamination has again deterred society away from reusable materials. Grocery stores were no longer allowing reusable bags; restaurants were only doing take-away, leaving you behind with plastic and/or styrofoam containers and utensils; and single use personal protective equipment extended beyond the healthcare system to the average citizen. Many reports have shown that materials such as plastic bags, disposable masks, and plastic gloves are littered everywhere from parking lots, to hiking trails, to the ocean. This tidal wave of pollution has overall become a major setback for many countries who had previously made impressive commitments to lowering waste.
On the other hand, people are staying home, not driving as much, and many industries were shut down or have reduced their output. This has resulted in a decrease in traffic, and industrial pollution which, in turn, has lead to cleaner air and water. In larger American cities such as San Francisco and New York City, air quality has improved by up to 30% since lockdown began in March (BBC). In Northern China and the more industrial cities of Italy, there has also been a similar improvement of air quality by 10 to 30% (NBC News). These reductions in common pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide are not only beneficial for us humans, but for wildlife as well.
Locally, there have been notable changes in the abundance of wildlife occupying spaces that were once often packed with visitors. For example, here in Orange County we have a small population of Western snowy plovers, a shorebird species that has been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1993. These birds occupy coastal dune habitats and create their nests by scraping small ditches in the sand which are extremely difficult to discern. Typically, our beaches such as Huntington State Beach experience a high amount of human activity, which deters the plovers from utilizing all of the available habitat. However, due to the closing of the beaches, we have seen Western snowy plovers nests in locations previously unseen for years. Over ten nests have been located and cordoned off at both Huntington and Bolsa Chica State Beaches this season. Fortunately, the species still has members of different conservation groups such as California State Parks, Sea and Sage Audubon, Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center, and OC Habitats working to protect them from both predators and human trampling during this time.
Although these temporary changes in lifestyle have positive impacts on the environment, it is by no means a long-term solution. Eventually, lockdown will end and normal life will resume. These changes seen on both large and small scale, however, can provide politicians, scientists, and citizens with critical information on how to mitigate issues such as climate change and species extinction.
With our increasingly advanced technology, we have found effective solutions for operating at a distance, habits which could continue after the pandemic and help alleviate declines in our environment. For example, many businesses have taken to online systems which lead to a significant reduction in traffic and fossil fuel consumption. Continuing this habit for even a few days a week could be a solution for local reduction in emissions related to transportation.
More importantly, as countries enter the recovery phase of this pandemic, they will be faced with the opportunity to invest in green energy and bolster both economic and environmental health. Shifting towards renewable energy would not only contribute to a much needed economic recovery by adding jobs and increasing GDP, but would create a long-term commitment to fighting climate change and creating a more sustainable future.
Although this pandemic has spread darkness across the world, we are all presented with the opportunity to find hope and create new light for the future, and it is up to us to take it.