International Policy Digest

World News /23 Jun 2020

The Environment in Times of Pandemic

Lockdowns, isolation, and social distancing will not save the world from global warming. However, these strategies imposed by governments to curb the spread of COVID-19 have been effective in reducing climate change.

According to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the world decreased carbon emissions by 17% compared to 2019. The index of gases causing climate change have reached their lowest levels since 2006. The authors suggest the drop is related to energy demand patterns – blocked borders and social isolation have reduced transport and changed consumption patterns. Emissions had an average reduction that ranged from 11% to 25%. The study analyzed 69 countries which are responsible for 97% of global emissions. In April, at the peak of COVID-19 confinement, 89% of these countries had some kind of restriction to limit the circulation of people, such as social distancing, isolation, or lockdown. Overall, there was a reduction of 1,048 million tons of carbon dioxide by the end of April. Besides the study, the world could watch the benefits of the lockdowns in terms of the climate.

A bittersweet silver lining to COVID-19 is how clear the air became among the world’s most polluted cities. Air pollution dropped to unprecedented levels around the globe. Cities like Delhi and Beijing had a clear sky and better air quality during the confinement. Chinese measures to contain the virus in February alone caused a drop in carbon emissions of an estimated 25%. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air forecasts that this is equivalent to 200 million tons of carbon dioxide – more than half the annual emissions of Great Britain alone. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution was responsible for 4.2 million deaths worldwide in 2016. Not only air quality improved but also the quality of water. In Venice, Italy, its canals are normally fouled by boat traffic and cloudy waters. During the confinement, Venetians saw an unexpected side effect, the waters transformed into crystal clear pools in which people could see fish swimming. American cities such as Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta are famous for air pollution that has given a break during confinement. On April 7, Los Angeles registered the cleanest air of any major city in the world, according to IQAir.

On the contrary to the positive effects of confinement, the obligatory use of personal protective equipment (masks and gloves) and the decision to limit the restaurant industry to takeout and delivery only, may contain the spread of the virus but have drastically incremented the production and usage of non-biological products such as plastics, latex, and styrofoam. As a result, COVID waste has become a new form of pollution.

Disposable face masks, such as the N-95, and the single-use blue surgical face mask, are made of polypropylene (PP). According to the Resin Code, PP is plastic number five, which is considered safe and easy to recycle. Still, many people will not recycle their face masks, nor are they aware that they can be recycled. PP plastic will take around 20 to 30 years to decompose. Remember that these masks are single-use; therefore, many people using these facemasks every day and not recycling can do a lot of damage to the environment. There are millions of gloves and masks being used then thrown away every single day. Using double layer cloth face masks that are washable and reusable, is a more viable option for those who want to reduce their footprint. Furthermore, cloth masks are cheap and simple to make. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the use of cloth masks and has instructions on how to make them at home.

COVID-19 led to the use of latex gloves, not only in the health sector but also in many industries, causing another environmental issue that needs attention. Latex gloves are disposable and unrecyclable. Though these gloves are made of natural latex, during their manufacture, natural latex is mixed up with chemicals, making them not eco-friendly. Vinyl and nitrile gloves are worse than latex gloves because they are made with plastics and synthetic materials, making them harder to decompose over time. According to Clarify Green, biodegradable latex gloves, made with 100% natural latex, can take up to five years to decompose. A person who is in contact with the public must replace the gloves every time he/she touches a new patient, customer, or client. Therefore, a regular person who is working full time might easily wear up to five, ten, or even more pairs of gloves a day. If we add up all the healthcare workers, and people in the service industry, the number of disposable latex gloves daily can be staggering.

The restaurant industry has also been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many restaurants have survived staying in business by offering their service for takeout and delivery. Thus, the amount of plastic and styrofoam containers used has grown during the pandemic. Most restaurants use plastic containers made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which can take at least 450 years to decompose. PET plastic can be found in bags, to-go containers, disposable utensils, and straws. Other restaurants use an even more dangerous type of box, styrofoam. Commonly called blue board, styrofoam, cannot be recycled curbside, it may take between 500 to 1 million years to decompose. As human beings, we understand the practicality of eating outside, but we need to do it in such a way that is not only convenient for us but also for the environment. If we order food to go, we can check if that restaurant uses more eco-friendly containers such as cartons, and we can use our own utensils and bags; therefore, minimizing the use of plastic bags, straws, and tools.

Confinement is a response to the pandemic with some positive effects on climate change. The world needs to remember that COVID-19 is temporary, whereas the threat from heatwaves, floods, drought, and extreme storms resulting in the loss of human life will remain with us for years. Ideally, the public sector, private sector, and especially financial institutions should look for a better sustainable model that includes climate and economic factors with opportunities to make real and lasting changes to avoid future crises. Our response to the pandemic should include climate change impact because it will shape the world for decades to come. We need to remember that the use of plastic and other synthetic materials, in many cases, is a personal choice. Ultimately, it is in our hands the products we use and how we use them. Decisions made in day-to-day life may lessen our personal impact on the environment. The world might have changed with the pandemic. However, it is up to us if this change is going to be good for the planet or not.