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What environmental changes from COVID-19 will stick around after pandemic?

During the first year of COVID-19, when fewer people were out and about, environmental health markers - like air and water quality - improved across the globe. Scientists and researchers are studying ways those improvements can be long-lasting, without the harsh, negative economic impacts inflicted by the pandemic.
One of the side effects that COVID-19 lockdowns had on the environment: the sounds of nature - like birds chirping - became far more apparent, especially for people who live in cities.
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, some marine life began to emerge in places where it wasn’t normally seen – indicating a rebound of some species.
With lockdowns easing around the world, air pollution levels are returning to pre-pandemic levels.
Posted at 12:01 PM, Apr 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-16 12:55:50-04

REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. — Clear skies, cleaner air, and even the simple sounds of more birds chirping: all are hallmarks of the first year of COVID-19 when fewer people were out and about.

“Nature is very resilient and nature is waiting in that space to blossom,” said Rachel Cleetus, policy director for the climate and energy program with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Cleetus said the past year taught people a lot about the environment and the possibilities to improve it.

“What became very clear is that human beings have an outsized footprint on our planet,” she said.

Among the biggest, and early changes are seen in air quality, thanks to industries operating at lower outputs and fewer vehicles on the road.

“We saw pretty drastic decreases in certain air pollutants, especially air pollutants that were caused by traffic and transportation,” said Gaige Kerr, an atmospheric scientist and air pollution expert with the School of Public Health at George Washington University.

However, Kerr said the air quality is starting to change again and not for the better.

“The pollution levels have more or less rebounded back to pre-pandemic levels,” he said.

One change that scientists say may have a longer-lasting impact is people's appreciation for the outdoors and green spaces, like parks.

“I think the pandemic's taught us a lot of things, and one of them might be the ability to have green spaces for exercise, to get out of our houses when we're cooped up,” Kerr said.

Another impact from COVID-19 came with the health of the world’s oceans. When restaurants closed, the demand for seafood plummeted around the globe. With fewer boats on the water, some marine life began to emerge in places where it wasn’t normally seen, indicating a rebound of some species. Some of those gains, though, have come at a cost.

“Oxfam, for example, was looking at hunger and poverty around the world and just sounding the alarm that many, many people were being driven into desperate situations,” Cleetus said. “The question is, can we make the kinds of policies and investments that will allow us to grab the best of what we saw in this last year and leave behind the parts that were inequitable and harsh?”

Scientists and researchers are now studying the past COVID-19 year to figure out how to make some of these environmental improvements last, while not harming how people make a living.

“This COVID-19 natural experiment is going to keep scientists busy for months, and maybe even years,” Kerr said.

It is work that’s being done in the hopes that future Earth Days are a bit brighter.