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COVIDs environmental impacts: Positives and negatives
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COVIDs environmental impacts: Positives and negatives

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, people worldwide have felt the effects of its rapid spread – citywide lockdowns, travel restrictions and strict safety measures. 

Yet, its impact does not stop at effects on everyday activities – it has also affected air, water, soil, and carbon emissions.

Researchers from Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University recently published a comprehensive, systematic picture of the pandemic’s impacts – both positive and negative – on environmental pollution and carbon emissions on different continents.  

A team, led by Dr Pow Seng Yap from XJLTU’s Department of Civil Engineering, analysed data from at least 25 countries published in more than 100 peer-reviewed papers and publications that focused on variations of environmental impacts on those countries.  

The literature review, published in recent months Science of the Total EnvironmentThere were both positive and adverse effects that pandemic control measures such as lockdowns had on the population.

Global water quality positively affected

The review found the most significant positive impact was on water quality, says Dr Yap, who is XJTLU’s Programme Director of MSc Sustainable Construction.

“During the COVID-19 lockdowns, the quality of surface water, coastal water and groundwater around the globe all greatly improved due to fewer commercial activities at beaches and harbours, and there was less sewage, industrial effluence and agricultural wastewater.”

Researchers found that water pollution was not decreasing in all areas.

“A few reservoirs and coastal areas were further contaminated, such as in South America, due to the lack of management and improper disposal of plastic waste,” he says.

Improved global air quality

Dr Yap reports that air pollutants like carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) were reduced in most parts of the country during pandemic lockdown periods. 

“This is because many governments restricted activities that cause air pollution, such as transportation, industrial activities, refineries and agriculture, through imposed measures like lockdown and social distancing,” he explains.

The review found that sulphur dioxide and ozone levels increased due to the continued operation of fossil fuel-combusting power stations and industries that produce these pollutants even during the lockdown.

Reduced greenhouse emissions

The review noted that the International Energy Agency reported a 5% decrease in global carbon emissions for the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. This was due to a drop-off in global energy consumption. 

“Because the lockdown stopped many activities that normally burn fossil fuels, the emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases were reduced,” Dr Yap says.

“The only increase in carbon emissions we found came from the operation of tankers and bulk carriers, because shipping continued during lockdowns and other travel restriction periods to keep supply chains moving.”

Negative: Global soil 

The study found that soil contamination caused by throw-away face covers was the most detrimental effect of COVID-19 on global environment.

“Masks have become necessary for people going to work or school, shopping, and many other activities, leading to a large number of used masks and other disposable personal protective equipment,” Dr Yap says.

“These have led to a continued increase and accumulation of solid waste and contamination of the soil.”

He says that soil contamination from these items could continue to increase.

“People will need to continue using masks and protective clothing daily due to the unpredictable mutation, rapid transmission and generally long incubation period of COVID-19,” he says.

Sustainability strategies

The paper notes how environmental problems that had been reduced by pandemic restriction were again exacerbated after they were lifted.

“Therefore, we’d like to put forward strategies to prolong the beneficial effects of COVID-19 on air and water while minimising the negative impact on soil,” Dr Yap says.

The research team suggests that governments establish laws and regulations for air and water pollution control – for example, higher taxation on pollutants. The team recommends prioritizing clean energies to reduce fossil fuel burning.

Dr Yap suggests that governments establish a system for disposing of hazardous waste and determining the maximum amount of waste allowed to be released into the environment in order to reduce soil pollution.

“Reusable masks that are antibacterial can be further developed to reduce the waste. On a personal level, people should try to choose packs of masks instead of those individually packaged with plastic pockets, and discard masks according to the waste classification principle after use,” he says.

The XJTLU research team consists Dr Pow Seng Yap and Mingyu Yang as well as Lin Chen and Goodluck Msigwa.

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