COVID-19 and Climate Change: A Glimpse of Hope or False Promise?
Illustration Credit: Alice Chaplin

Dolphins spotted swimming alongside boats in the canals of Venice and a herd of elephants getting drunk in a vineyard in China – it all sounds like the beginning of a satirical David Attenborough documentary. Of course, as much as we would all love to see these scenarios, they are both fake viral news stories. However, the concept of the environment thriving during this pandemic is not so far from the truth.

Climate change and COVID-19 – undoubtedly two of the deadliest threats facing our generation. After years of news headlines depicting rapidly melting ice caps and raging wildfires, the idea that our environment has actually benefited from this pandemic almost seems too good to be true. The pandemic has resulted in a multitude of positive outcomes for the environment: reduced nitrogen dioxide concentrations in China, reduced waste pollution on beaches, and reduced greenhouse gas production due to less transport use. Moreover, a study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that global CO2 emissions are expected to drop by 8% this year due to the pandemic, becoming the largest ever recorded decrease in CO2. Never before has there been the opportunity presented to invoke such a dramatic change in circumstances.

Yet, we have been forced to ask ourselves a vital question: has this pandemic provided a glimpse of hope for our environment, or is it just false promise?

It comes as no surprise that we grasp on to any positive news regarding the environment. We long to see headlines boasting that a glacier is starting to advance, or that the population of an endangered species has begun to rise. With influential figures such as Greta Thunberg pressuring officials for climate action, we are empowered to be the generation for change. The incredibly positive way in which our environment is responding to the pandemic has given us an insight into a climate-conscious future. Could this be the ‘fresh start’ that the environment was so desperately in need of? Could we finally rectify decades of pollution, fossil fuels and industrialisation?

Unfortunately, this idealised view of our current situation is a far cry from reality. On Friday 29th May, 20,000 tonnes of diesel fuel was spilled into a river within the Arctic Circle – a stark reminder of the reality of the environmental crisis. This ecological disaster will have catastrophic consequences for the Arctic as the fuel spill moves downstream to the Arctic Ocean. WWF were one of many organisations urging Russian federal officials to intervene in order to reduce the further spread of the fuel.

“I’d like to remind that according to legislation of Russian Federation, oil spills exceeding 5,000 tonnes are Federal level concern”, declared Sergey Verkhovets, the coordinator for WWF Russia Arctic Projects. In his statement, he explained how “the consequences of such accidents, especially in the North, are keeping afloat long afterwards”.

Although fuel spills may seem like the least of our problems at the moment, they create years worth of environmental damage. Disasters such as this occurring in the Arctic are of particular concern as the Arctic is warming over twice as quickly as the rest of the Earth, as well as being a haven for natural resource exploitation. We often see only the environmental disasters deemed ‘news-worthy’, for example the 2006 Boxing Day Tsunami or the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. Perhaps because it is only on this scale that we are able to visualise the sheer extent of the environmental consequences. However, it is vital that we do not underestimate smaller environmental disasters. Although such disasters and the climate crisis have not received the usual media attention due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they still remain some of the world’s greatest threats.

It is hardly surprising that we are continually fed information from news outlets about death tolls, updated government guidelines and possible solutions to the COVID-19 crisis. After all, this pandemic is an event we are unlikely to encounter again in our lifetime. However, it is vital that climate action is not swept under the carpet and forgotten about. The reality is that complacency during this pandemic will lead to catastrophic impacts post-COVID as life ‘returns to normal’. Ultimately, as ideal as it would be to maintain these environmental conditions, the reality is that it is simply impossible in our current climate.

Complacency in the climate crisis comes at a cost. Above all, this pandemic has taught us that time is of the essence, and delay is fatal. It is expected that government agendas will largely focus upon healthcare and economic recovery at this time, leaving inadequate funding for the climate crisis. As life ‘returns to normal’ it is inevitable that we will return to pre-COVID conditions in which we suffer from severe air pollution, high CO2 emissions from industry, and mass waste generation. Rising sea levels are devastating low-lying countries and warming temperatures are generating wildfires that span vast areas of land. The planetary boundaries are fast approaching, and if we press pause on the climate campaign we are setting ourselves up for devastation.

Amongst the environmental degradation that we expect to see post-COVID, it is difficult not to notice the exacerbation of disparities globally. It is important to note that if we remain complacent, it is not only the environment that will suffer. Those of lower economic backgrounds, ethnic minorities and indigenous people are who will suffer the most from the lethal combination of COVID-19 and climate change.

“There is the possibility it could get worse due to ongoing environmental injustices that refuse to be addressed,” noted Jazmin Scarlett, a Teaching Fellow at Newcastle University, “particularly when it comes to marginalised demographic groups”.

One such example deemed particularly significant during the pandemic is that of certain ethnic groups suffering due to pollution exposure. ‘Cancer Alley’ is an area spanning along the Mississippi River in the River Parishes of Louisiana, named after the dozens of factories in the area that have been linked to some of the highest rates of cancer in the world. At the time of writing, St John the Baptist, a parish located within ‘Cancer Valley’, has the highest number of COVID-19 cases per 100 000 within the state of Louisiana, with the largest ethnic group being Black or African American (55.4%).

Yet another example of environmental injustice continuing throughout this pandemic is that of the impact of COVID-19 upon indigenous communities. Although there was a global overall decrease in CO2 emissions throughout the pandemic, the emissions from Brazil told an entirely different story – there was a 26% increase in deforestation between March and May 2020 in comparison to the same period in 2019. This mass deforestation has subsequently increased Brazil’s CO2 emissions well beyond the targets of the 2016 Paris Agreement. Although indigenous land is protected by law, illegal deforestation has become one of Brazil’s most prominent issues in the campaign for climate action. Already being deemed a vulnerable population, with the mortality rate being twice that for indigenous people than the rest of the Brazillian population, it is likely that their susceptibility to COVID-19 will be exacerbated due to the air pollution generated by deforestation fires. With poor access to healthcare and essential services, as well as many of their traditional celebrations taking place in large gatherings, indigenous communities are undoubtedly placed at a high risk of contracting the virus.

As we dig deeper into the eventualities and possibilities of the environment post-COVID, we begin to realise that we have barely scratched the surface. The multitude of social and environmental benefits and issues created by COVID-19 have presented us with an unprecedented scenario in which we can continue the climate movement in one of two ways – we can either maintain our pre-COVID behaviours, or we can push officials to use the pandemic as an opportunity to promote more environmentally-conscious decisions post-COVID.

The dramatic response from the environment invoked by the pandemic has provided an ample insight into the possibility for environmental recovery, and for many has created a sense of hope and optimism for the future. Yet, is this simply the light at the end of the tunnel that we will never reach?

Whether we will use the pandemic as an opportunity to learn from our mistakes, or simply as a brief pause in global environmental degradation is yet to be seen. All we can do now is continue to push for climate action, both for social and environmental benefit, and hope that we can look back upon our actions post-COVID without remorse.