3 Ways COVID-19 Has Positively Impacted the Environment

a young man meditating and sitting on a rock from beautiful hiking views in estes park colorado

Written by: Sarah Haley

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the world in both positive and negative ways. Although the pandemic caused a substantial increase in plastic waste, it also had several indirect positive effects on the environment. 

At first glance, the entire pandemic appeared to be a negative situation for the majority of the world population. Global citizens were required to abide by government regulations as they endured lockdowns and social distancing measures.

But, as the world adapted to stay-at-home orders, the environment started to heal.

Air quality conditions improved as people started to work and learn remotely. Between January and March, 337 cities in China recorded an 85% increase in days with good air quality.1 Even climate experts predicted that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions had the potential to drop to proportions that hadn’t been seen since World War II.2

However, it doesn’t stop there.

In addition to air quality, wildlife has also been affected positively. Because tourism declined in Italy, the once heavily polluted canals of Venice started to appear clear and fish started to return home. Biodiversity slowly started returning to places around the globe while major cities experienced wildlife sightings.1

It can be easy to focus on the negatives of COVID-19, but the positive influence it had on the world should not be overlooked. 

Here are 3 ways COVID-19 changed the world for the better. 

1. Improved Air Quality

air pollution with smoke from factory chimneys

Good air quality is an essential component to ensure optimal health. Air pollution can cause wheezing, coughing, or trigger asthma attacks. It also increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and respiratory infections.3

In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) 2016 report, 91% of the global population live with poor air quality that exceeds the permissible limits. The same report also states that 8% of the world’s total deaths can be attributed to air pollution.2

Production halted in power plants and industrial facilities as a result of the social distancing measures implemented by governments around the world. Vehicle use also declined significantly as stay-at-home mandates were enforced. 

The decline in these activities caused a dramatic reduction in the air's concentration of PM 2.5 and Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2).

For example, due to the severity of the pandemic, China implemented strict self-quarantine measures and traffic restrictions. These actions resulted in PM 2.5 decreasing by 18.9 µg/m3in 367 cities and by 1.4 µg/m3 in Wuhan.

Nitrogen Dioxide levels also decreased substantially in China (by 12.9 µg/m3) and in Wuhan (by 22.8 µg/m3). Paris, Madrid, and Rome also saw significant decreases in NO2 concentrations.2

Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels also declined as a result of the pandemic. One study discovered a 17% drop in daily global CO2 levels during the start of the pandemic.4

Another study observed an increase in air quality while looking at the effects of a partial lockdown in São Paulo, Brazil. Compared to the 5-year monthly averages, Carbon monoxide (CO) levels dropped by up to 64.8% and nitric oxide (NO) levels by up to 77.3%.5 

One group of researchers suggested that seasonal ozone concentrations could decrease due to the unprecedented decline in air pollutant emissions. The researchers estimated that the changes in ozone precursor emissions could lead to yield improvements between 2-8% for wheat crops.6 

The COVID-19 pandemic improved air quality in cities around the globe by reducing greenhouse gas and pollutant emissions. It's important to remember the impact human activity has on the environment as life transitions back to the way it was pre-pandemic.

Air Pollutants

PM 2.5 signifies Particulate Matter that have a diameter less than 2.5 µm2.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a gaseous air pollutant that’s formed from the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gas, coal or diesel.7

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas that is harmless in small quantities but dangerous in high quantities. Humans and animals release CO2 as they exhale, and plants utilize it during photosynthesis to create sugars. CO2 is released from the burning of fossil fuels and as it builds up in the atmosphere, it causes a warming effect that influences the earth’s climate.8

Carbon Monoxide (CO) is a colourless and tasteless gas that’s toxic when there are high quantities in the air. It’s mainly formed from the incomplete combustion of carbon-containing materials.9 

Nitric Oxide (NO) is a colourless, toxic gas that’s generated by thermal power plants and vehicle engines. It is an important signalling molecule in animals, but also a serious air pollutant in high concentrations.10

Tropospheric ozone (O3) is a powerful air pollutant and greenhouse gas. It is formed when sunlight interacts with different pollutants and is harmful to ecosystems, agricultural crops, and human health.11

2. Increased Wildlife 

hand holding green sea turtle animal that got rescued

It's thought that the COVID-19 pandemic originated from the market selling of wild animals in Wuhan, China. After the initial outbreak, China implemented a ban on all consumption and farming of live wildlife. In addition to this, there has been a global movement to ban wildlife markets permanently.12 

Because the pandemic halted travel, there has been a reduction in the number of animals killed and injured. One study discovered a 40% decrease in wildlife-vehicle collisions for Estonia, Israel, Spain, and Czechia.13

With travel reduced and flights cancelled, the number of bird strikes also likely declined. According to The Federal Aviation Administration, in 2019, there were approximately 17.228 wildlife strikes at 753 U.S. airports.14 By March of 2020, more than 20 airlines suspended all operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic and travel bans.15 

Additionally, around the world wild animals were starting to appear in unexpected places. Big cities and other urban areas were beginning to see more wildlife as stay-at-home orders kept citizens inside.

In India, the number of sea turtles hatched on their beaches was significantly higher than normal. Authorities estimated that in one year, the Olive Ridley Turtles laid around 60 million eggs on Indian beaches.16 

3. Global Perspective Shift

hand holding up a globe in a green forest

The world has faced many challenges over the past year, and so have its citizens. 

People were locked inside their homes as they adapted to a new normal. For many people, these lockdowns resulted in lifestyle and perspective changes. 

A study looking at 995 individuals for lifestyle-related behaviours as a result of COVID-19 found that 29.8% of participants improved their eating behaviour. The same study found that overall sleeping hours increased for one-fourth of the sample population.17

Consumer mindsets have also changed as a result of the pandemic. Consumer research completed by Accenture found that 61% of consumers are making more sustainable and environmentally friendly purchases. 

The same research found that 72% of consumers are limiting their food waste. 

PwC surveyed over 8,600 consumers throughout the pandemic. Their survey results showed that 50% of respondents are more eco-friendly. 

The Takeaway

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the environment, wildlife, and global citizens in positive ways. 

Air quality increased as greenhouse gas emissions decreased, transportation was put to a halt, and social distancing measures were implemented.

Wildlife numbers rose as humans stayed inside their homes and vehicle use declined. 

The mindset of global citizens shifted towards a more ethical, healthy, and environmentally sustainable perspective. 


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