For a brief and beautiful moment shortly after stay at home orders were first issued, nature seemed to reclaim what it lost. The waters are clear, people can breathe deep, and animals roam empty city streets.

COVID-19 shut down most of the economy. Emissions from commerce and manufacturing dropped to levels not seen since 2010. Depending on how long the economy stays shut down, we could see a drop in global emissions as much as 10-14%.

But it’s too early to declare victory against pollution.

Poaching

Animal poaching is on the rise due to the drop in tourism around the world. Naturally this has a negative impact on the economy but surprisingly this drop in tourism also has a negative impact on wild animals who are regularly preyed on by poachers.

One of the ways we protect animals such as rhinos, lions, and elephants against poaching is through tourism. Rangers and wildlife guards must protect millions of acres with just a few dozen personnel. Generally, poachers do not operate in popular tourist areas however with tourism coming to a halt, illegal activity has increased by at least 600%.

Additionally, for many African countries, tourism funds 85% of wildlife conservation. Without tourism, conservation efforts will be severely impacted. Many agencies report that they will likely have to lay off a significant percentage of their workforce. Experts are concerned; when this happens, the will be less focus and efforts against poaching.

Pollution and Littering

It has become a common sight to see gloves and masks littering the streets. Widespread mask/face coving mandates have increased the need for personal protective equipment. Reusable products like bottles and bags have been prohibited in restaurants and retail locations due to concerns of COVID transmission on these surfaces. As a result, there has been a significant rise in single-use products and it has started becoming a major issue for the environment.

The majority of single-use PPE is made of plastic or non-recyclable materials, most of which are not disposed of properly. The litter then makes its way to places such as wildlife habitats. Additionally, PPE is especially dangerous to wildlife. Animals can easily become trapped or entangled within the ear loops of masks or ingest pieces of broken-down PPE.

Currently, there are no mass producers of biodegradable or eco-friendly single-use face masks. While reusable masks cut down on waste, they are also not recommended for places such as medical settings which have higher levels of exposure to dangerous viruses such as COVID-19.

Environment advocates understand the current need for single-use PPE outweighs the environmental impact however they recommend researching eco-friendly PPE for the near future.

Easing Regulations

Perhaps the most dangerous threat to the environment following COVID-19 is economic recovery. Historically, there have been steep drops in pollution such as the periods following the 2008 recession, the 1970 oil crisis, and various wars however it has also shown that the subsequent economic recovery usually cancels any environmental improvements.

In order to get the economy back on track after a disaster usually involves loosening emissions regulations to help companies and manufacturers ramp up business with as few regulatory hurdles as possible. This was seen happening right after the 2008 financial crisis.

Renewable energy advocates are saying this economic downturn is the perfect time to focus on investing on infrastructure. The stay at home mandate proved renewable energy can be sustainable. While “dirty energy” saw a sharp decline, renewable energy like solar and wind were operating at close to full capacity. Oftentimes, renewable energy is actually cheaper to run than coal or oil.

Why is Environmental Impact Important?

Patrick Parenteau, a professor at the Vermont Law School, noted that in virtually every environmental rollback, the E.P.A. has acknowledged that enormous increases in health problems and deaths will occur because of increased pollution. A new study from Harvard has even found that increases in pollution is associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 mortality rate.

For millions that have lost their livelihood or are on the edge, economic recovery and staying healthy are the highest priority but pollution and climate change will be an issue long after COVID-19 is a distant memory.

Photo by Thijs Stoop on Unsplash