“Reduced human activity is creating safer spaces for organisms, free from anthropogenic disturbance; nowhere is this more evident than on the planet’s beaches”Daniela Turcanu

Given the intensity and scale of the Covid-19 pandemic, it comes as no surprise that people are searching for good news wherever they can find it. The possible ecological recovery due to lockdowns and social distancing seems the perfect means for this morale boost: from reports of Venice’s waters clearing up to news of dropping pollution levels in cities worldwide, the imagery of a healing planet is widespread. Although these accounts may be accurate to some degree, the pandemic is, unfortunately, unlikely to provide an overall benefit to the environment.

Levels of air pollutants & greenhouse gases over major cities are showing significant decreases due to the impact of coronavirus on work and travel. Preliminary data from Columbia University, suggests that NYC is experiencing substantial drops in pollution levels, to the extent of a 5-10% drop in carbon dioxide emissions and a staggering 50% decrease in carbon monoxide emissions – a pattern replicated by major cities under lockdown worldwide.

The environmental impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic extend beyond emission levels, as certain conservation efforts are directly benefiting from lockdown measures. Reduced human activity is creating safer spaces for organisms, free from anthropogenic disturbance; nowhere is this more evident than on the planet’s beaches.

The vulnerable leatherback sea turtles, for instance, which hatch from eggs laid by females in the sand, are often killed before reaching the sea due to direct human contact, or by the risks associated with plastics and other rubbish entering the ocean. Despite the breeding season having only just begun, Loggerhead MarineLife Centre at Juno Beach, Florida have, as of 19/04/2020, recorded 76 nests on a 9.5 mile stretch of coastal sands, a “significant” increase from this time last year that is likely due to the reduced anthropogenic footprint on the area.

Despite the positivity of these reports, the notion that the pandemic is healing the planet is problematic on both a humanistic and ecological level. The lockdown will not last forever and economic activity is likely to eventually return to previous levels. The environmental benefits accruing may therefore be short-lived blips in the current, albeit far from inevitable, trajectory into environmental chaos.

“However, the decrease appears to have only been temporary

China, for example, as a major polluter, has considerable potential to contribute to a reduction in global emissions. The country experienced a 25% decrease in CO2 emissions due to coronavirus-related effects. However, the decrease appears to have only been temporary, with coal consumption at power plants and oil refineries returning to within the normal range by the late March. The positive effects on conservation are also likely to rapidly diminish, as demonstrated by the Governor of Florida’s plans to reopen some beaches to the detriment of both leatherbacks and the loggerhead sea turtles which breed later in the season.

The crisis itself is also having a direct impact on conservation efforts in many countries as the temporary closure of ecotourism sites have cut off a vital income source for wildlife organisations. The Brazilian Amazon, an epicentre of the green movement, and its indigenous people are also facing reduced state protection ahead of the fire season, as fewer law enforcement officials are deployed and monitoring missions are scaled back. Land grabbers continue to invade the Amazon for various reasons, increasingly to mine gold due to coronavirus-related price rises, contributing to further rainforest clearing and burning.

Olivaldi Azevedo, director of the Brazilian government’s primary environmental protection agency (IBAMA), stated that efforts must be scaled back because “[there] is no choice between one thing and the other. It’s an obligation.” This decision is somewhat surprising, given Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right Brazilian president, described environmental enforcement as an essential service that would continue throughout the crisis.

In late March, Brazilian media announced the murder of Zezico Rodrigues Guajajara, an indigenous forest guardian and now the fifth member of his community to have been killed since November. These tragic events are likely to have a direct impact on the rainforest itself, as a recent study found that indigenous territories and protected natural areas of the Brazilian Amazon sequestered greater levels of carbon due to reduced deforestation and degradation. Hence, scaling back support for these communities during the pandemic will be harmful to both the indigenous people themselves and the environment that supports ecosystem functioning at a global level.

“In order to preserve the planet’s magnificent wildlife, governments must enforce stricter pollution standards”

During these troubling times, there is nothing wrong with sharing pictures of coyotes in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, deer spotted in deserted Japanese cities, or peacocks roaming the streets of Dubai. However, we must understand their dark tone – we are only seeing these ecological effects because our industrialised countries have so little biodiversity to begin with. In order to preserve the planet’s magnificent wildlife, governments must enforce stricter pollution standards, carefully plan the bailouts of polluting industries, and support companies which prioritise environmental protection in their exit strategies.


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Worryingly, this is not the direction many governments are taking:, as evidenced by news of China relaxed emission standards for automakers, and the US Environmental Protection Agency announcing a radical relaxation of environmental rules that will allow companies to regulate their own emissions. The latter decision has been described as “an open license to pollute” by Gina McCarthy, the former director of the EPA under Obama. A recovery from the pandemic with the health of the planet at its centre will support all of humanity economically, environmentally and socially – we cannot afford to reverse the progress the green movement has made.

Jeremy Clarkson misunderstands the green movement when he writes that the pandemic “is what our eco friends have been dreaming about” – of course this is not what environmentalists, or anybody with any compassion for the planet and its 7.8 billion human inhabitants, have been hoping for. A green planet built on the suffering of millions of people and economic recession is not a sustainable one. Only a concerted shift towards integrating environmentally friendly processes into all aspects of modern life, as part of a green economic recovery, will help us save our home. A green world at the expense of its most vulnerable residents is not a green world at all.