COVID-19: how the environment is changing


Cienna Beard & Elinor Amir-Lobel, Content Editor & Copy Editor

Since 2020 began, all that anyone has been able to talk about is the coronavirus. Every news source and social media platform has been providing constant coverage each day on how this new, widespread disease is impacting humanity. However, the coronavirus is also affecting the environment, and it is important to be aware of the short term and long term consequences that could arise from this pandemic.

In 2018, according to various studies, the tourism industry accounted for almost a tenth of global greenhouse gas emissions. Since travel has come to almost a complete halt in recent months, major industrial forms of transportation including airplanes, ships, and even cars are being used way less than before all of this insanity began. Also, many industrial facilities like major factories have shut down due to concerns of crowded working spaces. This giant industrial halt has dramatically reduced air pollution levels. For instance, according to BBC News, in China, greenhouse gas emissions have fallen 25% since the start of 2020, and, since the end of 2019, coal use has fallen by a whopping 40% in the six largest coal plants. Satellite images have also shown that the levels of nitrogen dioxide emissions have gone down significantly in major cities and countries, including Italy, Spain, and Britain. Nitrogen dioxide is estimated to be about 300 times more toxic than carbon dioxide, and it significantly depletes the ozone layer. Therefore, reducing emissions of this hazardous gas could, in the long run, greatly help with climate change. Even right here in the U.S., especially in populated cities such as San Francisco and New York, the positive effects of the virus are unmistakable, with San Francisco having a 40% drop in particulate matter, tiny particles of solids or liquids that hover in the air, and New York having a 28% drop, as of late March. It is also clear that many other factors besides a reduction in factory emissions, including people staying home more and driving less, have also had a huge impact on this sudden improvement in air quality. 

With all this good news for the environment, questions are being raised on whether or not the world will be able to sustain these new, healthier environmental conditions in the long run. These recent changes may very well be only a short-term breath of fresh air, literally, and when the economy kicks up again and travel resumes, it is likely that we will simply relapse back into our old and familiar patterns of life. On the other hand, it is also possible that humans see these effects and realize that a major change in our lifestyles may be worth saving our planet. In short, the coronavirus pandemic will be a huge deciding factor in what course we will take regarding climate change and the environment’s overall well-being. It will either be a step forward towards cleaner, healthier surroundings, or a step backward into a world with even more pollution. 

Air pollution may be drastically reduced for the time being, but plastic consumption and usage most certainly is not. With many healthcare workers and restaurant owners relying on plastics so heavily, especially since delivery and takeout are the only options available for many restaurants, concerns regarding the overuse of plastic and its negative impact on our world, specifically on our oceans, has taken a backseat. All across the U.S., for instance, previously placed bans on plastic bags have been lifted. It seems that the coronavirus has, as with every other aspect of life, flipped the switch on our opinions on what is good or bad for the environment. 

The United Nations had originally been planning to hold a climate conference this November in Glasgow, Scotland, but that meeting has been postponed until 2021. This meeting has been heavily anticipated since 2015, when the Paris Climate Accord was signed and the countries agreed to meet again five years later with new pledges to limit global warming. The postponement of the conference could allow countries extra time to create more successful pledges, but, even so, it is clear that they all will need to work extremely hard in order to reach a reasonable yet impactful agreement on how to handle the environment in the post-coronavirus world. 


Works Cited

Denne, Luke. “Coronavirus Lockdowns Have Sent Pollution Plummeting. Environmentalists Worry about What Comes next.”, NBCUniversal News Group, 14 Apr. 2020,

Georgiou, Aristos. “Coronavirus Is Having a Major Impact on the Environment, with Reduced CO2, Better Air Quality and Animals Roaming City Streets.” Newsweek, 24 Mar. 2020,

Josh Gabbatiss Science Correspondent  @josh_gabbatiss. “Nearly One Tenth of Global Carbon Emissions Come from Tourism.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 7 May 2018,

McFadden, Christopher. “7 Ways the Coronavirus Is Affecting the Environment.” Interesting Engineering, Interesting Engineering, 26 Mar. 2020,

“Will Covid-19 Have a Lasting Impact on the Environment?” BBC Future, BBC, 27 Mar. 2020,