Climate Change & the COVID19 Pandemic

The complex relationship between humans and the environment has been developing since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, when our species first learned that burning fossil fuels could produce energy. In more recent years, the links between the health of our planet and the health of our species have become clear.

Photo credit: Anna Shvets
Photo Credit: Anna Shvets:

Man-made, often referred to as anthropogenic, climate change, is the theory that human activity has influenced the balance of Earth’s atmosphere in a way that is causing our planet to heat up, speaking in terms of overall temperature averages. This theory is widely accepted by scientists and climate experts. Decades of data and research has not only supported this conclusion, but additionally predicted trends that we are now seeing play out in real-time. An example of this is an increase in extreme weather events like wildfires and hurricanes, both of which have broken weather records in recent years.

This year saw the addition of a global pandemic into the mix, one which has rivaled the famous pandemics of human history in terms of scale and spread. Logically, if modern human activity has a direct environmental reaction, anything that influences human activity and alters our habits will therefore impact this environmental reaction. The question is, how?

Optimists look to the stay-at-home orders and see improved air quality, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and less environmental noise, stemming from a reduction in vehicle use and general fossil fuel burning. Beaches and green spaces, too, were granted a temporary respite from the waste and commotion that we tend to bring with us. If humans release fewer greenhouse gases this year, could we buy ourselves some time on the Doomsday Clock?

However, a general increase in waste has occurred. In just one example, Wuhan produced 240 metric tons of medical waste per day during the height of their outbreak, in contrast with their usual 50. Additionally, the significant uptick in sales of delivery and takeout food, often arriving in non-recyclable containers that find their way to landfills, which in turn are huge producers of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Many cities temporarily shuttered recycling centers amid infection concerns, leading to a rise in environmental contamination and pollution.

On the other hand, China saw reductions in air concentrations of significant pollutants, Nitrogen Dioxide and particulate matter, following the implementation of social distancing measures in late 2019. France, Germany, Italy, and Spain followed suit, with similar reductions of Nitrogen Dioxide. Though Nitrogen Dioxide itself is not a greenhouse gas, it’s increased presence leads to consequences like acid rain and respiratory infections.

The relationship between air pollution and the COVID-19 pandemic is increasingly complex. In addition to coronavirus influencing pollution levels, pollution levels in turn affect the human body and may increase susceptibility to diseases, especially viruses that infect the respiratory tract. A Harvard study was the first to show a correlation between air pollution and COVID-19 deaths, finding that U.S. counties with higher rates of harmful small particulate matter (PM 2.5), are associated with higher death rates from coronavirus. A study in China found a similar association, between air quality and rates of influenza-like diseases.

Back in April, researchers at Carbon Brief reported that the crisis had cut emissions in China by 25%. They estimated that the pandemic could cut global emissions by 2000m tonnes of Carbon Dioxide, which equates to around 5.5% of 2019 global emissions. However, emissions would need to fall by 7.6% every year this decade if we want to avoid hitting the 1.5℃ average warming increase that scientists predict may be the point of no return. An August study published in Nature Climate Change corroborated this unfortunate hypothesis, estimating that, at best, we have staved off 0.01℃ of warming.

There has been no indication that humans will return to anything other than pre-pandemic levels of consumption and activity, once given the opportunity. Long-term pictures are blurry, as we’re not sure what “work” will look like in the coming years. If remote work takes on a more appreciated role in workplace culture, we may indeed see fewer commuters on the road and thus fewer emissions. Whether or not it will make a significant difference in greenhouse gas levels, the jury is still out, and the judges are apathetic.

That being said, hope remains, especially in light of a United States president-elect that believes anthropogenic climate change, as a concept, is real news.



Healthcare, Business and Tech enthusiast. Passionate about arts, food, and road-running.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Saeed Zeinali

Healthcare, Business and Tech enthusiast. Passionate about arts, food, and road-running.