The common belief that the current and global pandemic has made our world more sustainable is a sweet illusion. At the beginning of lockdowns, many people claimed on social media: “Nature is healing, we are the virus”, leading to an ocean of memes and tweets. From Venice canals, where swans returned with fish living their best marine lives, to wildlife taking back cities’ streets. We would like to believe that the environmental impact of 2020, has been positive.
However, this is not the case: we are at the same point as in 2019, even worse. The pandemic has harmed the environment more than we thought, resulting in a negative environmental impact.
Has 2020 been good for the planet?
So let’s look at the bigger picture: during global lockdowns, C02 emissions decreased by 17% daily globally in April, with a 26% of decrease, on average per country. Globally, carbon emissions have been reduced by 8.8%. Nevertheless, the same situation happened during the 2008 financial crisis. The world witnessed carbon emissions drop, to skyrocket again, once the economy restarted.
When everyone was amazed by the bluest skies, due to a decrease in air traffic, carbon concentrations were at their highest point. The Mona Loa Observatory reported a seasonal peak of 417.1 parts per million in May 2020, compared to 408 ppm in 2019. It is the highest monthly reading ever recorded, in millions of years. On this finding, scientists said that we would need to pursue efforts for 12 months, to see a small decrease in carbon emissions concentration. Hence, our efforts during the pandemic have been nothing but a drop in the ocean, and this is not how we are going to save the planet.
The movement behind addressing our environmental impact has been highlighted this year by the Fridays for Future movements, and Greta Thunberg on Time cover. Meanwhile, numerous continents like Australia, Indonesia, and Siberia saw a half of their forests and biodiversity burning. We can say that 2020 has been a daunting year for sustainability. So let’s make 2021 count by answering the following question: What is the environmental impact of 2020, during covid-19?
And while we’re it, you do not have to be a sustainability guru or obtain a degree in quantum physics to solve environmental issues. You are part of the solution because it is about understanding the problem first.
What is an environmental impact?
Let’s begin with starters, everyone talks about environmental impacts, but honestly, what are they? By definition, an environmental impact is the effects that the activities of people and businesses have on the environment. An environmental impact can be both positive and negative. However, in the 21rst century, especially 2020 -- it has mainly been negative. Environmental impacts can be compared to a domino game or butterfly effect; where small impacts have a significant effect on our future.
According to the European Commission, changes in environmental conditions lead to impacts on the social and economic functions on the environment, such as the provision of adequate conditions for health, resources availability and biodiversity. An environmental impact often occurs in a sequence: for example, carbon emissions cause global warming (primary effect), which causes an increase in temperature (secondary outcome), leading to ice sheets melting (tertiary development), finally leading to loss of biodiversity.
Now that we have understood the principles of environmental impact let’s dive into the core of the subject.
The environmental impact of International Policies
Has 2020 been good for the planet?
If we could resume 2020 in a word, it would be “Ecocide”. The term “ecocide” was coined by US biologist Arthur Galston in the 1950s, while he was working on Agent orange, during World War II. Ecocide is defined as: “An individual who wilfully causes or orders the causing of widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment shall, on conviction thereof, be sentenced. This definition is part of the 1991 draft of the “Code of Offences Against the Peace and Security of Mankind”.
Since then, ecocide is not recognised as a punishable crime by the United Nations and is not part of International Law. Hence, no one can be held accountable for their negligence of the environment. The lack of regulations leads companies and individuals to fail to minimize their environmental impact. However, if ecocide was part of international law, companies will think twice before releasing chemicals in rivers.
Carbon tax laws
Unless you are working at the European Commission, it is difficult to make sense of the carbon tax regulation framework. According to economists like Nicholas Stern, the climate crisis is a result of multiple market failures. Economists and environmentalists have urged policymakers to increase the price of activities that generate high levels of GHG emissions. But we are not there yet.
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For example, the United Nations is not the fittest institution to deal with climate change, as it was initially created to avoid another war. On top of that, members of the United Nations (countries) are not legally bound by recommendations made by the UN. Countries can sign the Paris Agreement targets voluntarily with no legal ratification, or legal obligations in case of non-compliance. Also, developing countries are allowed to emit more until they develop technologies to emit less. To cut carbon emissions, the government must increase investment in sustainable innovation and low-carbon technologies and adopt policies that address those market failures.
The biggest environmental impact: pollution
Remember the song “Love is in the air” by John Paul Young? Well nowadays it could be remastered as “Pollution is in the air and everywhere”. Let's face it, pollution is one of the biggest environmental challenges of 2020.
Air pollution kills an estimated seven million people worldwide every year. WHO data shows that 9 out of 10 people breathe air that exceeds WHO guideline limits. The air we are breathing is containing high levels of pollutants, with low and middle-income countries suffering from the highest exposures. Besides, 23% of global deaths are linked to the environment, which is more than traffic-related death or malaria.
In light of COVID-19, a recent study (still in review) suggests a correlation between air pollution and COVID-19 infections. Epidemiologists explain these empirical findings by noting that air pollution can affect the pandemic in three ways: increasing transmission, increasing susceptibility, and worsening the severity of the infection. Biologists analysed the microparticles named PM2.5 and found that breathing over many years; increases the risk to get the virus.
“If you’re getting COVID, and you have been breathing polluted air, it’s putting gasoline on a fire”
Francesca Dominici, Harvard biostatistics professor.
PM2.5 particles penetrate deep into the human body, lowering the immune system, increasing heart diseases, breathing troubles, diabetes and inflammations. You will understand: air pollution from the past, is still affecting us today.
Cleaner air is a short-term outcome as soon as aerial traffic, and business goes back to normal. As many people temporary experienced breathing cleaner air during the pandemic, it can be a wake-up call on the world we want to build tomorrow. It is time for us to understand the extent of our environmental impact.
Plastic has just been around for 100 years, and it is the most significant environmental impact of 2020 (and for years to come). Eight million metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans every year. This equates to one garbage truck’s worth of plastic being dumped into our oceans every minute. The total weight is the equivalent of 90 aircraft carriers. Also, only 8% of global plastic produced is recycled. On top of that, models project that by 2050, there will be more plastic by weight than fish in oceans. Imagine your next holidays in the Bahamas, snorkelling around plastic gloves and masks: a real nightmare.
Contrary to popular belief, the pandemic triggered an estimated global use of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves every month. It is enough to cover all of Switzerland in plastic alone, resulting in mass environmental contamination. Most gloves and masks end up in our rivers and oceans, as there is no solution to recycle such items. On top of that, masks can be confounded with jellyfishes by turtles as it is their favourite food—the risk of our marine life getting entangled in masks is even greater.
On the other side, fossil fuels prices have crashed, making plastic production even cheaper—no wonder why plastic is the number one choice of numerous companies globally. Thus, single-use plastic usage has skyrocketed due to increased take-outs (as people stay in their cosy homes). It is estimated that there will be 30% more waste in 2020, than in 2019.
And if the picture could not get darker, countries like the United States are cutting the budget on recycling facilities to save money during the pandemic. Some recycling facilities have already stopped their activities. So, how are we going to tackle the plastic pollution crisis, resulting from the pandemic?
Deforestation: 2020, the year of fire
Every minute, forests the size of 20 football fields are cut down. By the year 2030, the planet might have only 10% of its forests; if deforestation isn’t stopped, they could all be gone in less than 100 years. As a fact, there are only 79 years left until the end of rainforests.
We can describe 2020 as “the year of fire”. Our planet never experienced such increased wildfire rates and sizes of areas affected by fires. It first started with Indonesia and Australia, where citizens could not even see the sky. And it continued with Siberia, Argentina, the Amazons and California. In Australia, the fires have burnt 8.5 million hectares across six states, and it is estimated to lead to the deaths of more than one billion native animals, whether directly or indirectly. This is the highest recorded for the past 20 years.
“You can do whatever you want in the Amazon, and you won’t be punished."
Ane Alencar, director of science at IPAM Amazônia
On the other side of the globe, the policies established by the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has favoured deforestation in the Amazons. Either for business or agriculture. As a fact, in 2020, the destruction of the world’s largest rainforest rose 9.5 per cent from a year earlier to about 4,280 square miles. That’s only just a little smaller than Connecticut. Also, Fires in Brazil’s Amazon increased by 13% in the first nine months of 2020, compared with a year ago. Knowing that once burnt, a tree releases all the carbon dioxide it has captured over its lifetime, you may imagine the repercussions on air pollution and your health.
2020 has seen the release of the sensational documentary of Attenborough’s "Life on our Planet". Even though it raises awareness towards biodiversity conservation and the imminent death of millions of species, we still have a long way to go, and we have to start now. Biodiversity is crucial for our survival and the good functioning of our ecosystem. Our year is characterised by “an alarming rate of biodiversity extinction”, resulting in ecosystems imbalance. Let’s think of future generations, where species like the “amur Leopard” will be an old myth like the Loch-Ness.
This year, the World Wildlife Fund’s 2020 Living Planet Report estimated that globally, populations of nearly 21,000 species of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians decreased by an average of 68 per cent, within 50 years. Also, 70% of biodiversity loss is attributable to agriculture. On another note, a recent study found a potential correlation between biodiversity loss and virus outbreaks. Biodiversity loss results in a few species replacing many, and these species tend to be the ones who host deadly pathogens that can jump to humans.
Thus, the loss of habitat leads species to directly interact with humans. A study published in April 2020, revealed in Uganda, an increase in direct interactions between humans and primates; as people were going into the forest to cut wood, and primates to raid crops in villages. This raises the risk of pathogens exposure and pandemics frequencies rate. Biodiversity loss is a crucial environmental issue, and everyone shall collaborate to restore our planet’s biodiversity.
The East Antarctic ice sheet, which holds 80% of the world’s ice is melting quicker than we thought. This scenario is highly catastrophic and could be the opening of a futuristic movie. However, it is real, so it is time to take climate action. For decades scientists thought the ice sheet was “invincible”; however, their discourse changed. Even though it happened 400,000 years ago; a collapse in the ice sheet would result in a surge in sea levels, flooding the world’s coastal areas and threatening the lives of millions of people. Will become Florida the future Atlantis?
Far from the North pole, scientists predict the Greenland ice sheet will pass a threshold beyond which it will never fully regrow, and raise sea levels permanently. It is another study of another ice sheet. The Greenland ice sheet is seven times the area of the UK, and stores a large amount of the Earth's frozen water. At current rates of melting, it contributes almost 1mm to sea level per year and accounts for around a quarter of total sea-level rise. It is time to reduce our environmental impact.
The environmental impact of 2020 has been mainly negative, contrary to what society may think. Scientific evidence points out the distinct environmental challenges that humanity has to solve. It is not too late to reduce our environmental impact, and reverse climate effects. 2021 is just around the corner, so make it count: either at a personal or professional level.
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Author Note. This article is not meant to scare about climate change, rather listing out the challenges that we have to solve: from individuals, governments, policymakers to corporates.