Covid Silver Lining?

How the COVID-19 Pandemic and the Planet are Connected  


Emma Johnson

Students pedal bikes to power speakers at the Earth Day protest.

Emma Johnson, Associate Editor

  Over the past year of headlines dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a common beacon of good news: the environment. This topic has been used by many news outlets to show a silver lining of global lockdowns, claiming that the health of the environment has been improved as humans fight this ravaging disease.   

Lower levels of air pollution, rebounding of natural populations, and numerous other benefits have been heralded. While these benefits are real, environmental issues are much more complex than that. There are also many ways that humans’ response to the pandemic is harming the earth. 

Before going into the negatives, there have been several positive effects on the environment as a result of humans being in lockdown. In April of 2020, global carbon emissions were decreased by 17% from what they were at the same point in 2019. This came mostly due to the sharp decrease in transportation and the temporary hiatus from factory production and other industries. 

At Highland, many teachers have lowered their environmental impact during the pandemic by reducing the amount of paper used in their classrooms. Because students have learned how to work online during the long months of lockdown, there is less of a need to print out worksheets and tests even when school is back in-person.   

“If kids have access to computers, I don’t ever want to go back to using paper,” Highland teacher Jennifer Jacobsen said.   

She explained how the pandemic has shown her how much waste is actually completely unnecessary.   

Furthermore, with humans cooped up in their homes during the long months of the first lockdown, animals and nature had a chance to reclaim some of the world. For example, in Istanbul, Turkey, dolphins have been able to come much closer to the city without the constant threat of shipping tankers. Pink flamingos in Albania have increased in population by about one-third, and Thai dugongs have been flourishing as well due to the sharp decrease in tourism and human activity in their habitats.   

As uplifting as these events may be, the unfortunate reality is that the pandemic has wrought a deal of havoc on the climate as well. Humans have needed this source of optimism over the difficult past year, but scientists warn that climate change is still a severe and impending catastrophe. The sparkly 17% drop in carbon emissions in April of 2020 was a high point, with the average drop in annual emissions totaling just about 7%.   

This is still a significant number, being the largest yearly decrease in carbon emissions since possibly World War II. However, experts do not expect this benefit to last once coronavirus restrictions are lifted. An article by Time Magazine explores instances in history when humans’ environmental impact has decreased then subsequently rebounded, explaining that “when a crisis causes a drop in carbon emissions, it’s unlikely to be sustainable.” Following the end of the pandemic, humans will have the same industries, the same infrastructure, and largely the same mindset surrounding climate. Because of this, scientists warn that without a conscious effort to prevent it, the rate of environmental degradation will go right back to where it was before.   

Experts warn that as soon as people’s lives can go back to normal, levels of pollution and emissions will fly right back up, possibly even past the previous levels. For example, factories may be inclined to surge production to make up for lost time, as stated in National Geographic. Additionally, it is likely that car traffic will increase when people need to start commuting to work again but remain wary of the health risks associated with public transportation.   

Another way the coronavirus pandemic will end up hurting the environment is by way of distraction, in that it is taking attention away from the strides that have been made in the past few years. Many companies have been requesting allowances in environmental regulations, and many governments have been giving them. Corporations, especially the biggest polluters, have been able to avoid a lot of emissions guidelines, either under the radar or in the name of staying afloat in this time of economic struggle.   

Governments during this period have rolled back many environmental protections. Though the roughly 100 protections removed by former president Trump weren’t all due to COVID, it is speculated that the distraction of the pandemic did allow the administration to get many things overturned without much resistance.  

Worldwide, over 25 nations have enacted conservation rollbacks, according to a report by Conservation International. Many governments are showing that they believe the climate crisis to be a second-tier issue, one that can be set aside and forgotten about.   

According to Time Magazine, the window to take care of climate change is already small and rapidly closing, with worldwide turmoil from the Coronavirus only making things worse.   

“In many countries, the political conditions are not conducive to a strengthening of climate action,” explained a former climate negotiator.   

While the pandemic may have distracted adult leaders from the climate crisis, the youth activism movement has only strengthened through this time.   

According to a 2008 survey conducted by the United Nations Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, 89% of young people believe that they can make a difference on climate change. This statistic was collected well before the recent surge in activism inspired by teens such as Greta Thunberg.    

This enthusiasm for the environment shows in many ways around the world, including in Salt Lake City, where climate advocates often protest outside the capitol building.  

Earth Day, which was April 22, was one day a protest was held. Activists inspired the audience with their voices amplified by bike-powered speakers, booths for sustainable organizations shared thoughts with curious patrons, group cheers rang out, and all the while children and students decorated the sidewalk with chalk messages.   

The protest was overall a success despite the admittedly low attendance. Organizers said that they hope more people will come out to rally once the dangers of the pandemic are lessened.   

COVID-19 has affected just about every single aspect of life, and the planet is another example of that. Though the situation may sometimes appear bleak, the end of the pandemic seems to be drawing near, and with it a lot of potential political momentum. Studies and current events are showing that if people have the education and motivation to act on climate change, it is not too late to be fixed.