Brussels (Brussels Morning) COVID-19 restrictions in the past six months have given some welcome breathing space and a temporary respite to the embattled environment, according to the EU’s environment agency. However, those effects did not last.
The European Environment Agency warns that societal resilience depends on a resilient environment. Any further loss of biodiversity and intensification of farming makes zoonotic diseases more likely. Air quality has a significant impact on health, which shows in the numbers of ill and deceased from corona.
Lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic may have some direct, short-term, positive impacts on the environment in terms of slightly lower emissions and better air quality.
However, the increased reliance on single-use plastics and low oil prices resulting from lockdowns have proven to have negative consequences. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that some 89 million medical masks were required worldwide, together with 76 million examination gloves and 1.6 million sets of throw-away after use goggles.
The EEA considers that in order to tackle the pandemic, there has to be a shift into sustainable production and consumption systems and only then can there be long-term environmental benefits.
GHGs improve as transport sector declines
The EU agency stated that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at both global and EU levels were visibly affected by the pandemic.
Thanks to the impact of COVID-19 measures on the global economy, the EEA expects “an unparalleled reduction in GHG emissions in the EU compared to 2019”. However, it will not be possible to estimate the drop in GHG emissions until after 2020, the agency said.
The plunge in GHG emissions reflects the pandemic’s huge impact on the transport sector. The International Road Transport Union expects a 57% decrease in business revenue this year, compared to 2019.
As for air transport, figures from the International Air Transport Association show a 65.2% drop-off in passenger traffic in Europe from January to July 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.
Improved air quality has been one of the notable environmental side effects of COVID-19 containment measures. Large urban areas across Europe have experienced what could best be described literally as breath-making plunges in air pollution levels in the course of the first lockdown.
During the first nine weeks of confinement in London, an average decrease of 31% in nitrogen dioxide, a road transport pollutant, was recorded along the streets of the British capital.
According to the EEA assessment, “this period has revealed some of the benefits that could be achieved from a lasting and sustainable reduction in air pollution”.
Another example of the lockdown’s beneficial impact was ventured by the Joint Research Center which suggests that the decrease in air pollution is likely to improve crop production, especially wheat.
The study estimated that northern EU countries could look to a 2-to-3% increase in wheat yields, with countries in the south of Europe experiencing crop yields up to 7% higher than the norm. Increased soil fertility is attributed to “changes in ozone in countries outside Europe”.
Overall, the EEA concludes that pandemic-imposed lockdowns likely upgraded environmental quality in terms of reduced emissions and improved air quality.
However, the impact is expected to be temporary, which is all the more reason why EU governments should study and learn from the experience and try to replicate the results by adopting targeted and sustainable measures.