Environment still under threat with Covid-19 pandemic

Tuesday, March 31st, 2020 00:00 |
Coronavirus effects. Photo/COURTESY

Stories of improved air and clean drinking water  in countries on lockdown over coronavirus gives a glimpse of hope the environment will recover from toxic elements due to human actions. However, experts are quick to debunk this as Milliam Murigi finds out.

The novel coronavirus is upending everything from transport to businesses and the economy. It is also having a big impact on the environment.

Nancy Githaiga, policy research and innovation manager at Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) Kenya, says impact of a compromised planetary health are no longer futuristic.

They are already here with us and the lack of balance posed by our actions is causing real damage.

“There is nothing positive about the virus on the environment. Of course there will be reduction in emissions from controlled air travel, clampdown on economic activities globally and locally, small reductions in emissions from traffic as more and more people stay indoors, but this is short-lived,” she says.

What is more alarming, she says, is that where there are higher instances of air pollution, citizen’s health is often compromised by long-term exposure, making people more vulnerable and susceptible to diseases such as COVID -19, with urban population more exposed.

Underlying health damage to respiratory functions may as well create higher vulnerability on city dwellers and those exposed to toxic fumes than others.

“This pandemic needs to make companies and governments realise other threats to humanity such as climate change, could be just as devastating, and it is imperative to develop protective measures,” she says.

Elizabeth Wathuti, an environmentalist and climate change activist, echoes Nancy’s words, saying since social distancing and working from home were recommended as a protection measure, the environment has benefitted with improved air quality due to decreased driving and less coal burning.

Data from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency shows since January 1st, air quality in China has significantly improved.

Experts also say that between January 1st to March 12th concentrations of nitrogen dioxide produced by cars and power plants fell immensely, especially in Italy.

Nancy Githaiga, policy research and innovation manager at Worldwide Fund for Nature. Photo/COURTESY 

However, researchers note that a measurable change in one pollutant does not necessarily mean air quality is suddenly healthy across the countries.

Apart from Nitrogen Dioxide falling immensely, greenhouse gas emissions in China has also gone down by 25 per cent as the country conducted a massive societal intervention to stop the spread of coronavirus. 

Reduced water pollution

Wathuti also notes countries will also experience reduced water pollution, considering not all companies are operating normally, thus less effluent released to water bodies.

Additionally,  since movement of people from one point has been restricted, amount of waste, which ends up to our water sources has been minimised as well.

With fewer cars being used in different countries, there is reduced global demand for oil.

This could make longer-term investments in clean energy more attractive for major energy players.

And maybe certain nations will respond to the economic crisis with stimulus efforts that pump money into clean energy and climate adaption.

However, this might also spike fossil fuel consumption as the global economy takes steps to recover, negatively impacting investment in renewable industry.

“I would urge our government to use this current situation to step up our climate ambitions and launch sustainable stimulus packages focused on clean energy technologies,” says Wathuti.

She adds the biggest negative impact on the environment will be overuse of available water, considering proper hygiene and sanitation is the main preventive measures recommended to stop the spread of the virus.

“So far, we have seen people setting up community washing points or people washing their hands frequently.

Elizabeth Wathuti, an environmentalist and climate change activist. Photo/COURTESY 

This will double or triple our water demand and of course nature will feel this heat,” says Wathuti.

Mountain of waste

Apart from increased demand for water, there has been high demand for preventive gears such as face masks, hand sanitiser, hand wash and wet wipes.

However, how these products are disposed of is quite worrying, and will be a major environment challenge that will have both short and long-term impact. 

The discarded gears have also raised concerns about the spread of germs, which can end up in our water bodies.

Worst, the products are made of non-degradable materials, increasing apprehension about their environmental impact.

And with the virus consuming everybody’s attention, the climate change issue has been crowded off the agenda.

Last week alone several United Nation meeting meant to tackle global warming and halt extinctions of plants and wildlife were postponed or cancelled outright in response to the pandemic.

There is a possibility of postponing the COP26 talks scheduled for Glasgow in November, although a decision is yet to be taken.

At the event, countries are supposed to come up with more stringent plans to curb greenhouse gas emissions since current plans under the Paris Agreement are inadequate.

“Meetings should be cancelled, but important decisions should not be delayed. The corona crisis cannot be allowed to slow down action to tackle climate and ecological crises,” said Wathuti.

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