This time last year, many people would only wear a mask for Halloween. Now people around the world are wearing masks daily, travelling less and staying home because of COVID-19. These adjustments have environmental impacts that can cause changes in the health of the planet.
Some of the changes people have adopted throughout the pandemic include working from home, shopping online, and driving less. As a result, in March, social media was flooded with stories of clear canals in Venice and goats invading Welsh towns. These viral moments are not indicators of a drastic change in global climate; however, they provide a snapshot of what nature could return to if there were a prolonged decrease in human activity.
Statistically, the first months of the pandemic did show improvements in environmental indicators. Researchers from Environment and Climate Change Canada studying air quality found that Toronto and Montreal experienced a 30% fall in nitrogen dioxide levels between March and May (Rabson, 2020).
More recently, quarantine restrictions are constantly changing, many people are choosing to return to some aspects of their normal lives and the initial positive impacts have started to reverse. Commuters may be opting not to take public transit leading to increased traffic congestion, and billions of people choose to use disposable PPE which is being littered and overwhelming landfills. Furthermore, industries which were economically devastated may increase production to make up for lost revenue.
At R. H. King, students may notice the environmental impacts of health precautions. To avoid spreading contamination, students may wash their clothes and reusable masks after every use leading to increased water usage. Deceptively, online learning doesn’t always lead to less paper use as students have printed copies of online worksheets. Olivia Hoste is a grade 11 student at King “The pandemic has changed a lot of our habits, not always for the better. Most of the people I know that used to take the bus back and forth to school, now get driven every day. I’ve noticed that traffic has increased significantly as a result.” Says Hoste.
Overall, it’s difficult to know what the long term impacts of COVID-19 will be on the environment. The pandemic is one of the most pressing issues facing the world today and the guidelines set by health professionals are necessary to minimize the impact of the virus. However, the climate crisis won’t be put on hold, and in order to mitigate negative environmental impacts, those who are able can find areas where protecting their health and the environment overlap.
The early months of the pandemic provided a way for the people to realize how their collective habits impact the environment in real time. If enough people make adjustments it is possible to reduce negative environmental impacts like air pollution and wasted energy. Something as simple as using reusable PPE and cleaning supplies can reduce waste and litter in natural areas.