As SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus pathogen that causes the illness COVID-19, sweeps across the globe, social distancing measures are noticeably impacting the environment. Consequently, both the preservation and restoration of environmental quality are experiencing a new normal as the pandemic continues.

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Coronavirus and climate change-related conservation

COVID-19 has heightened wildlife conservation awareness. As Scientific American has cited, wildlife trade secured additional notoriety when the CDC broke the news of a zoonotic pathogen jumping from animals to humans, causing the current pandemic. Secondly, when the American Veterinary Medical Association announced the positive presence of COVID-19 in domestic animals, zoos and BioTechniques Journal likewise saw captive animals test positive with the new coronavirus. This elevated concerns for sources such as UNESCOTimeNature and Smithsonian Magazine about the future safety of already threatened species, like the great apes who are similar to humans. Additionally, National Geographic raised alarms on poaching proliferation in conservation reserves as rangers and keepers self-isolated.

Related:  Discarded face masks now threatening wildlife habitats

Should climate change run unabated, future zoonotic disease outbreaks may become the norm, asserts Conservation International and Harvard University’s School of Public Health. Given that healthy animals living in healthy ecosystems are robust enough to resist diseases, by minimizing climate change and protecting habitats, we may be able to avoid future pandemics.  

a power plant emitting fumes into the air

Social distancing has improved air quality

The COVID-19 crisis has forced activity freezes. Lockdowns and calls to shelter-in-place have closed schools and non-essential businesses. Minimal activity from industrial sites, factories and construction sectors has minimized the risks for toxins to escape, in turn improving air quality.

Travel bans have similarly restricted international flights. Canceled conferences, festivals, concerts and other public events have diminished interest in tourism, reports the US Travel Association. Airline ridership has slumped, and airports are as near-empty as they were in the 2001 aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. As such, aviation emissions — which accounted for 2.4% of global CO2 emissions in 2018, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) — have dropped significantly.

Still, the EPA says vehicular activity contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions than airlines do. Presently, fewer people are commuting, not just in major cities, but all over the world. Traffic nowadays centers mainly around immediate household supply runs to nearby stores, trucking supply transports to retailers or wholesalers, plus commutes by those in essential industries.

Both Traffic Technology Today and The Guardian have spotlighted the United Kingdom’s reduced traffic, which has plunged by 73% “to levels not seen since 1955.” And across the Atlantic Ocean, Canadian traffic has also declined, GEOTAB disclosed. As for the U.S., not only has road travel decreased, but congestion has all but disappeared, says VentureBeatNext City and USA Today. The decrease in congestion is critical, as idling vehicles emit more pollution

With substantially less vehicular movement, air quality has improved by leaps and bounds. Numerous sources have covered how air quality indices of the globe’s largest metropolitan areas have improved extensively since strict coronavirus lockdowns were issued. Even NASA satellites from outer-space show the significant reductions in air pollutants, which supports EcoWatch‘s observation that the novel coronavirus pandemic has delivered the silver lining of decreased air pollution

The Guardian added, “In China, the world’s biggest source of carbon, emissions were down about 18% between early February and mid-March – a cut of 250m tonnes, equivalent to more than half the UK’s annual output. Europe is forecast to see a reduction of around 390m tonnes. Significant falls can also be expected in the US, where passenger vehicle traffic – its major source of CO2 – has fallen by nearly 40%. Even assuming a bounceback once the lockdown is lifted, the planet is expected to see its first fall in global emissions since the 2008-9 financial crisis.”

Reduced carbon emissions and global warming

Just last week, Carbon Brief (CB) published that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted energy use worldwide, which could cut carbon emissions by an estimated 5% of 2019’s global total. That means the coronavirus crisis is so far “trigger[ing] the largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions in 2020, more than during any previous economic crisis or period of war.” While this is encouraging news, experts say it still may not be adequate for meeting Paris Agreement goals to keep global warming from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius.

an oil field

What’s happening with fossil fuels during the pandemic?

When the pandemic called for lockdowns, paralyzing both air and ground travel, the demand for fuel was likewise decimated. An oil price war ensued with drastic shifts in global oil politics, thus destabilizing the fossil fuel sector, reported Business Insider. Even Fortune magazine highlighted the worry about where to store the surplus oil. According to Forbes, this pushed President Trump to broker a historic deal, whereby the planet’s top oil producers — namely Saudi Arabia and Russia — agreed to cut oil production.

As Sandy Fielden, director of oil research firm Morningstar, said to the BBC, “This is an unprecedented agreement because it’s not just between Opec and Opec+…but also the largest supplier in the world which is the US as well as other G-20 countries which have agreed to support the agreement both in reducing production and also in using up some of the surface supply by putting it into storage.”

Effects on the renewable energy sector

CNBC showed the renewables industry suffering supply chain cuts and employee layoffs during the deepening COVID-19 recession. There are worries that clean energy investments appear less desirable. Construction and development projects have been delayed as lockdown periods extend. Renewables, therefore, seek slices of the stimulus package to waylay progress derailments, which even the International Energy Agency (IEA) has cautioned about.

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What’s happening to climate change policy during the coronavirus pandemic?

COVID-19 could portend future pandemics, particularly if global warming unleashes unknown diseases trapped in ice. Ensuring that global warming and climate change do not disrupt our planet’s health is still of paramount importance. Green Tech Media emphasized this, saying, “Climate change didn’t stop as the world turned its attention to combating the coronavirus.” Climate activism continues, despite cancellations to large climate change-related summits, negotiations and conference meetings.

Not all climate advocacy during this time is lost. Optimism reframes these economic stimulus measures as helpful nudges for climate policy and the renewables sector to evolve for the better. Indeed, Clean Energy Wire upholds that these federally-backed stimulus packages can be leveraged to provide investment opportunities in both the infrastructure that can reduce emissions as well as in clean technologies. Science Alert, moreover, contends, “the coronavirus has forced new working-from-home habits that limit commuting, and a broader adoption of online meetings to reduce the need for long-haul business flights. This raises the prospect of long-term emissions reductions should these new work behaviours persist beyond the current global emergency.”

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