Environmental impacts of coronavirus crisis, challenges ahead

20 abril 2020

Written by Robert Hamwey, UNCTAD Economic Affairs Officer

A man holds COVID-19 masks on a fishing line
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As the number of coronavirus infections grew exponentially in Europe and North America in March, restrictive public health measures to stave off a worsening pandemic were put in place.

They included stay-at-home orders, which were first issued in Italy and then in rapid succession in most other countries around the world.

With entire populations ordered to stay home, schools, offices and factories limited their activities, road traffic dwindled to a minimum and airlines reduced scheduled flights by 60% to 95%.

Slashed greenhouse emissions

While these developments have inflicted substantial economic and social shocks as global production, consumption and employment levels dropped precipitously, they have also been associated with significant reductions in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

As a result, air quality levels in the world’s major cities improved dramatically in March and April. Air quality improved largely because of a reduction in factory and road traffic emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and related ozone (O3) formation, and particulate matter (PM).

During the same period, global air traffic dropped by 60%. Taken together, these emissions reductions have led to a temporary dip in CO2 emissions from their pre-crisis levels, encouraging some to hope that our global society may indeed be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially over the long term to mitigate impending climate change.

So long as the coronavirus crisis keeps economic activities reduced, emissions will remain relatively low. However, it would be short.sighted to conclude this is a durable environmental improvement as emissions will most likely rise to previous levels when economic activity picks up as the crisis resolves.

Many environmental campaigners are thus demanding that bailout packages for transportation companies and industrial manufacturers include provisions for large emissions reductions in their future operations. Such provisions could help prevent pollutant emission levels from rising to pre-crisis levels going forward.

Not all positive

But not all the environmental consequences of the crisis have been positive. Volumes of unrecyclable waste have risen; severe cuts in agricultural and fishery export levels have led to the generation of large quantities of organic waste; maintenance and monitoring of natural ecosystems have been temporarily halted; and tourism activity to natural areas has ceased.

Local waste problems have emerged as many municipalities have suspended their recycling activities over fears of virus propagation in recycling centres.

Food retailers have resumed using plastic bags at checkout points citing health concerns over consumers’ reuse of paper bags. In addition, due to stay-at-home policies, many consumers have increased their consumption of take-away food delivered with single-use packaging.

All these developments have created acute challenges for the waste management industry at a time when they are operating with limited capacity due to the coronavirus crisis.

With the emergence of import restrictions in export markets and sharp declines in the availability of cargo transportation services, the coronavirus crisis has led to increased volumes of un-shippable agricultural and fishery commodities.

Many export-oriented producers produce volumes far too large for output to be absorbed in local markets, and thus organic waste levels have mounted substantially.

Because this waste is left to decay, levels of methane (CH4) emissions, a greenhouse gas, from decaying produce are expected to rise sharply in the crisis and immediate post-crisis months.

As exports of agricultural and fisheries products have declined, production levels have plummeted, causing unemployment levels in both sectors to grow substantially.

Many post-harvest processing workers in these sectors are women supporting households, causing extreme hardships, particularly for low-income women in developing countries where social safety nets are not in place.

Ecosystems at risk

Natural ecosystems and protected species are at risk during the coronavirus crisis. In many countries, environmental protection workers at national parks and land and marine conservation zones are required to stay at home in lockdown, leaving these areas unmonitored. Their absence has resulted in a rise of illegal deforestation, fishing and wildlife hunting.

The stoppage of ecotourism activity has also left natural ecosystems at risk of illegal harvesting and encroachment. In addition, as ecotourism is often a major economic mainstay in many destinations, rising unemployment caused by the crisis may lead many households to harvest resources from fragile ecosystems unsustainably as they seek alternative means to provide their households with food and income.

Many of the environmental challenges caused by the coronavirus crisis will gradually resolve on their own once the crisis comes to an end and previous levels of economic activity resume.

But it is also true that the benefits of air pollution reductions will also be erased. Overall, the crisis may thus have no permanent environmental effects.

However, what we have learned about the environmental benefits and risks of sharp drops in global economic activity will certainly help us to better understand the mechanics of environmental sustainability, societal consumption patterns, and how we can reduce environmental degradation in a future crisis-free world.

Need for action

Attention must be given to threats on the environment and natural resource bases as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and consequential social and economic impacts.

Many rural and coastal populations rely on the sustainable use of the local environment and its natural resources whether they be small-holder farmers, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) involved in the production of BioTrade, forestry and fishery products and ecotourism services.

As the crisis causes disruptions in their linkages to both national and international demand-side markets, rural producers, of whom many are women supporting entire households, are now no longer able to fully maintain their business models and livelihoods.

If the crisis is prolonged, many will be forced to abandon existing sustainable production in order to generate income quickly in domestic markets, potentially resulting in further poverty and over-exploitation of natural resources and ecosystems.

What UNCTAD will do

Helping rural and coastal producers to adapt to crisis market conditions and take actions for recovery and improved performance in post-crisis markets is a top priority.

UNCTAD’s Sustainable Trade and Environment Programme stands ready to assist stakeholders from governments, producer associations, SMEs, MSMEs, independent producers (including women entrepreneurs) and civil society to elaborate coronavirus adaptation and resilience strategies.

Actions taken by producers pursuant to such strategies can help maintain subsistence income levels, while ensuring the sustainable management of agricultural, forestry, marine and biodiversity-rich ecosystems.

Such strategies are expected to be based on enhanced collaboration by affected producers and public support entities in order to adjust to new market realities. To be effective, such assistance needs to be implemented as soon as travel restrictions are eased.

Follow-up activities will later be provided to assist countries to restore their businesses when the crisis comes to an end.

UNCTAD’s support includes methodologies for market assessment and trade-related responses as well as means to reforge direct linkages with sourcing businesses interested in restoring a sustainable flow of natural inputs.