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article imageEssential Science: Has COVID-19 really helped the environment?

By Tim Sandle     Jan 18, 2021 in Science
From the environmental perspective, what has been the effect of the pandemic upon the environment? The results are mixed, depending upon which aspect of ecology is examined. We look at four contrasting cases in this week's Essential Science.
Perhaps the general assessment is that the coronavirus pandemic has helped to reduce pollution - far fewer people embarking on the fairly commute, for example. Those who lean in this direction may regard the change as substantial and long-term, or something transitory and a moment in time that does not significantly alter the trajectory that the planet is taking towards permanently damaging rises in global heating. The message is mixed.
A view of one of the bays in St Ives. The deep blue Atlantic shimmers.
A view of one of the bays in St Ives. The deep blue Atlantic shimmers.
This has led to some social media posts about a positive environmental impact, [url= t=_blank]citing things like new wildlife sightings in urban areas, to make claims “nature just hit the reset button on us". This ignores the transitory nature of the decrease in negative environmental impact and the build-up of plastic waste.
In terms of balance, this article considers two positive examples of environmental impact and two negative, each related to changes occurring during the coronavirus pandemic.
Space observations
From the positive side, data issued by NASA from space photographs, indicates that the Earth has visually changed. This is in terms of air pollution is diminishing, water quality is improving, and snow is becoming more reflective.
An azimuthal equidistant projection of the entire spherical Earth. A rendered picture of the Flat Ea...
An azimuthal equidistant projection of the entire spherical Earth. A rendered picture of the Flat Earth model. Created By Dominic Sobieski, The white around the outside of the globe is thought to be an 'Ice Wall', preventing people from falling off the surface of the earth.
One way to explain this is through travel restrictions. Transport makes up 23 percent of global carbon emissions during 'normal' times. These emissions have dropped in the short term in all countries. Furthermore, there are signs that these changes are in line with improved public health measures.
Improved air quality
Air quality is a key measure that has provided positive data during the pandemic, especially in regions where lockdowns have been in place. Take China, here emissions have fallen 25 percent year-on-year. In the country the proportion of days recorded with “good quality air” was up at almost 12 percent.
Shijiazhuang has seen 10 bouts of serious air pollution so far this winter  according to the China D...
Shijiazhuang has seen 10 bouts of serious air pollution so far this winter, according to the China Daily newspaper
Greg Baker, AFP
Furthermore, in Europe, satellite data shows nitrogen dioxide emissions fading away over northern Italy. A similar pattern is apparent in Spain and the UK.
Turn off that video camera
The rise in videoconferencing and streaming has a relatively negative impact on the use of energy. Scientists from
Purdue University have assessed that videoconferencing produces 150-1,000 grams of carbon dioxide. In comparison, a U.S. gallon of petrol (gasoline) burned from a car emits about 8,887 grams. In addition, to produce the power required, this needs 2-12 liters of water and demands a land area that represents the size of an iPad Mini.
Zoom in operation  a tool for home working.
Zoom in operation, a tool for home working.
In contrast, deactivating the camera during a web call can reduces these carbon footprints by 96 percent. Moreover, streaming content in standard definition instead of high definition can bring about an 86 reduction, if video cameras need to be used.
The research appears in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, with a paper titled "The overlooked environmental footprint of increasing Internet use."
Plastic pollution
The very high demand for disposable medical products in the wake of the pandemic has created a deluge of medical waste. In China, as an example, the volume of medical waste has risen from 40 to 240 tons a day, on average.
Digital Journal s Tim Sandle wearing an AirPop mask.
Digital Journal's Tim Sandle wearing an AirPop mask.
Back in June 2020, conservationists were already warning that the coronavirus pandemic was contributing towards ocean pollution. This was through contributing to the glut of plastic waste threatening marine life. Early into the pandemic, there were masses of disposable masks reported to be floating like jellyfish together with waterlogged latex gloves found on seabeds.
READ MORE: [url=http:// t=_blank]Microplastics and our planet: Part 1 – looking at the problem
Humanity's generally poor approach to deal with waste is proving no different during the time of the coronavirus and there are a lot more face masks to dispose of. For instance, the UN trade body, UNCTAD, estimates that global sales will total some $166 billion this year, up from around $800 million in 2019
It is difficult, at this stage, to objectively assess the environmental evidence. There are positive and negative aspects, and in time we will be able to form are clearer picture. It is correct there is better water quality in the Venice canals, bluer skies over Delhi and wild animals appearing. Yet there are also mountains of food going to waste and mountains of accumulating plastic and a greater deposition of microparticles. Certainly more action is needed.
Essential Science
This article forms part of Digital Journal’s long-running Essential Science series, where new research items relating to wider science stories of interest are presented by Dr. Tim Sandle on a weekly basis.
Digital Journal s Tim Sandle wearing a face shield.
Digital Journal's Tim Sandle wearing a face shield.
Last week we considered the six COVID-19 vaccines for which certain national regulatory authorities have authorized the use, plus the many potential COVID-19 vaccine candidates currently in development. With this level of activity, we posed and answered the question: How are these vaccines developed?
The previous week we found out it is not only dogs and horses that have the ability to visually 'talk', to humans kangaroos do too. This was shown in an assessment of non-verbal cues in relation to signalling about food supplies. The research challenges the notion that domestication is needed to enhance animal communications.
More about Covid19, Ecology, Pollution, coronavirus
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