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Explore what we know

Article Published 15 Jun 2020 Last modified 06 Jul 2020
10 min read
Photo: © Emily Gallé, REDISCOVER Nature/EEA
From air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions to urban life and recovery policies, how the current coronavirus crisis impacts the environment poses many questions. We try to address some of these questions based on the knowledge held by the EEA, Eionet and other partners. This section will be regularly updated with new knowledge shared with us.

 

Air pollution 

How has the COVID-19 crisis affected air pollution?

A decrease in many societal and economic activities has led to a decrease in emissions and subsequent levels of certain air pollutants. Nevertheless, effects vary across sectors. In terms of transport, use of vehicles declined during lockdowns and we see this reflected in lower nitrogen dioxide concentrations in many cities across Europe – reductions exceeding 60 % in a number of cases. Regarding industry, this depends on the sector and the lockdown measures adopted by each country/region, such as closure of factories. For agriculture, production continued at similar levels in order to maintain food supplies.

EEA  viewer air quality and COVID-19 tracks average weekly and monthly concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5). Data show how concentrations of NO2 — a pollutant mainly emitted by road transport — have decreased in many European cities where lockdown measures have been implemented.

Is there a link between exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 infections?

Exposure to air pollution is associated with cardiovascular and respiratory disease, both health conditions known to increase susceptibility to COVID-19 and negatively influence prognosis. Some non-peer-reviewed articles have suggested links between air pollution and high mortality rates for COVID-19, for example in Italy and the US. Major limitations include the lack of reliable and consistent data on mortality rates in different regions and the failure to effectively control for numerous confounding factors, such as population structure, international connectivity of the community, social and individual behaviours such as smoking. Spatial coincidence alone cannot be taken as causality. Further epidemiological research is required to elucidate possible causal associations.

An additional question is whether particulate matter can transport the virus. Again, further research is required.

Chemicals

What does COVID-19 mean for our exposure to chemicals?

Many chemicals are associated with harming health, in ways that also have been found to increase susceptibility to COVID-19, including pre-existing conditions such as obesity, cardiovascular diseases, immunotoxicity and respiratory disease. As such, the assumption is that individuals with such pre-existing health conditions resulting from chemical exposure may have increased susceptibility to COVID-19. 

In terms of chemical exposure, the pandemic-induced confinement increases indoor exposure to other types of pollutants originating from our built environments. Concerns with the overuse and/or misuse of disinfectants, and other indoor chemical exposure have been raised in scientific communities.

At this stage, there is little hard data to back up these assumptions, and further research is required.


Climate

Will COVID-19 be good or bad for GHG emissions and climate change?

The COVID-19 crisis has a direct impact on global and EU greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, although we will only be able to fully quantify its magnitude after 2020.

After the last financial crisis in 2008, GHG emissions fell by over 7 % with a contraction in GDP of about 4 %. The European Commission’s forecast for the year 2020 estimates a 7.6 % contraction in GDP for the EU as a whole. So, all things being equal, and due to the effect of COVID-19 on the economy, we could expect a reduction of GHG emissions in 2020 of between 10 % to 15 % compared to 2019. While this directly affects the achievement of 2020 climate mitigation targets, the longer-term consequences are more uncertain and largely depend on the response given at national, EU and global level, including possible shifts in political priorities.

Is there a link between climatic conditions and occurrence of COVID-19?

Some early scientific studies suggest that relatively low temperatures (5-11 0C average) and low absolute humidity favour the spread of COVID-19 whereas relative humidity was a weaker predictor. One of these studies has been used as the basis for the Monthly climate explorer for COVID-19 recently published by the Copernicus Climate Change Service.

Observations in the coming months and years regarding the seasonality of COVID-19 in different climate zones and further research will provide crucial information to understand the links between climate factors and virus spread.


Consumption and resource use

Will COVID-19 affect efforts to reduce consumption levels and resource use?

After the last financial crisis in 2008, material use decreased, mainly as a consequence of the breakdown of the construction sector in several countries. This is not the case for the COVID-19 crisis. Recovery packages that have a focus on building renovation and infrastructure development may lead to higher material consumption.

Direct effects from the COVID-19 crisis would for example be the increase in use and waste of personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, etc., as well as increased used of single-use plastics due to hygiene concerns. We may also see increases in packaging for take-away food and online commerce while shops are closed, and an increase in consumption of electronics for home offices. Indirect effects would include decreased generation of domestic, commercial and industrial waste due to lockdown and the hardships of an economic recession.  

The very low oil price strongly affects the plastic recycling market, as recycled plastics compete with virgin plastics which can be produced a lower cost when the oil price is low. Recycling companies might go bankrupt, and more plastics could end up being incinerated or landfilled, or stockpiled.  

Some existing strategies to reduce resource use such as the sharing economy and mass or shared transport solutions have virtually collapsed during the COVID-19 crisis.

The ongoing IT-intensive technological revolution may well be intensified and/or  accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis as, for example, options for physical communication are reduced, IT-reliant practices such as teleworking are extended, and systems designed to track people in response to contagion are deployed. This may have long-term effects on travel patterns.

Nature

Is there a link between environmental degradation and COVID-19?

The risk for zoonotic disease agents to jump from animals to humans is increased by habitat destruction, human migration into natural ecosystems and land grabbing (for food, feed and biofuels).

Increased use of biofuels has been one of the strategies to reduce the use of fossil fuels but has a severe negative side effect in that it leads to deforestation (that also contributes to climate change).

The demand for bush meat — a factor in spread of diseases such as COVID-19 — could also increase in the future as a result of food shortages linked to climate change and extreme weather events.

Is nature recovering as a result of the COVID-19 crisis?

Since the Europe-wide lockdown, many anecdotal stories are appearing about changing behaviour of wildlife. Some of these are better documented than others.

There have been many studies since the 1970s on the impact of human disturbance on wildlife, in particular on breeding birds. Less disturbance in urban, but also in remote areas (less recreational tourism), gives threatened ecosystems and habitats the chance to recover, and for species to occupy new spaces and niches. The outbreak of foot and mouth disease in animals in 2001 required significantly less restrictions on human movements than the current COVID-19 crisis, but still had a noticeable impact on biodiversity.

However, lockdown restrictions also mean less recreational tourism, less volunteers to help and less revenue for parks. All this could lead to less support for “managed nature”. At the same time, people are seeking other kinds of recreation and may come to value their urban and peri-urban green areas more in the future.


Noise pollution

Are we benefitting from less exposure to noise thanks to COVID-19?

Noise pollution from transportation sources, such as road, rail or air traffic is linked to economic activity. Therefore, in the current situation we expect to see a significant reduction in transportation noise levels in the short-term due to decreased transport activity. Looking at the air pollution data from monitoring stations, it is likely that there is also a significant drop in noise levels during the COVID-19 lockdown as noise pollution from traffic and NO2 levels are typically correlated. Anecdotal reports in many national media confirm perceptions that noise has dropped in many European cities.  

Since the European legislation on environmental noise does not foresee the collection of real-time noise data, we are not able to provide a quantification of this reduction. Environmental noise levels are reported averaged over a prolonged period of time as health effects appear when exposure is long-term. It is safe to say that a two-month reduction in noise levels would not significantly reduce the annual noise level indicator used to measure the effects of noise. Protection of the population from transportation noise will only be achieved by a long-term strategy on mobility and transportation systems.

Long-term exposure to the levels of noise observed in many urban areas can cause health effects such as annoyance, sleep disturbance and heart problems. We have grown accustomed to unhealthy noise levels in cities, because it is what we are used to hearing every day. However, the short-term reduction in noise during lockdown has allowed many people to experience the immediate benefits of quieter cities, and this may have implications for future behaviour and policy.


Recovery policies

What does COVID-19 mean for the environmental agenda, policy and legislation?

The COVID-19 crisis represents a dramatic shock to the global economy that will affect progress on environment and climate change in different ways. The biggest driver of the long-term impact on climate is through fiscal recovery packages, along with possible shifts in power within and across national and international institutions. Green fiscal recovery packages are essential to help decouple economic growth from environmental and climate impacts and reduce existing welfare inequalities that will be exacerbated by the pandemic in the short-term and climate change in the long-term.  

Short-term reductions in air pollution and GHG emissions resulting from lockdowns will themselves have minor long-term effects, unless they facilitate deeper and longer-term human, business, and institutional changes. Urgent rescue packages have been necessarily focused on preserving liquidity, solvency, and livelihoods, but their climate and environment impact also needs to be positive. 

As we move from the rescue to the recovery phase of the COVID-19 response, policymakers have an opportunity to invest in productive assets for the long-term. Such investments can enhance the shifts in human habits and behaviour already under way. In the lead up to COP26, recovery packages are likely to be examined on their climate impact and contributions to the Paris Agreement (UNFCCC, 2015).

What has the European Union proposed to help Europe recover?

In the European Green Deal, the European Commission had already proposed an ambitious and just transition towards long-term sustainability, placing environment and climate concerns at its centre. These priorities are also clearly reflected in the multi-annual EU budget proposal of EUR 1.1 trillion for 2021-2027. As part of a recovery plan from this economic crisis, a new, additional financial instrument called ‘Next Generation EU’, amounting to EUR 750 billion, was recently proposed by the European Commission. Framed within well-defined policy targets, these funds can help Europe transform its economy while achieving climate-neutrality and sustainability and addressing social inequalities.

Urban life

How has COVID-19 changed the way we think about cities?

More than three quarters of European citizens live in cities, and city life has changed dramatically due to COVID-19. While millions of citizens were asked to stay at home and respect social distancing rules, many city planners and authorities have been looking at how to make cities more sustainable under these new circumstances as the recovery from the economic and social impacts of this current shock starts. Cities around the world already face multiple challenges, including the need to adapt to a changing climate. Recovery plans need to seize the opportunity to align environment and climate objectives to society’s resilience to current and future shocks. 

New research is looking into how urban nature areas increase the resilience of cities, maintain well-being in urban populations, while also enabling social distancing. Cities around the world need to find ways to function better during these disturbances. Thus, maintaining or increasing space for nature in cities and keeping it accessible to the public should be part of the sustainability agenda as a priority. 

Digital innovation will play a key role in helping authorities and communities to shape the cities of the future. For example, data from the Copernicus European Earth Observation programme will help to measure progress and monitor environmental policies, as well as to formulate future policies by providing models and outlining future climate impacts.

Water pollution

What does COVID-19 mean for water quality and pollution?

The supply of clean drinking water and treatment of waste water are critical services which continue to be provided by the water sector. Ensuring quality standards are met for drinking water and discharged waste water is a key priority, both for Europe and individual Member States. Water utilities have contingency plans to deal with emergencies.

Lower economic activity during lockdowns is likely to lead to lower emissions to water from industry, while emissions from schools and workplaces are likely to shift towards households. There may be less water stress in specific areas in Europe depending on the impacts on agriculture and energy production.

Reduced tourism is also likely to lead to lower emissions to water at European coasts and other tourist destinations.


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