The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Environment

27 May 2020, 11:20 a.m.

(Disponible en français : La pandémie de COVID-19 et l’environnement)

Financial crises, pandemics, international conflicts and environmental incidents have all affected the Canadian economy in the past, sometimes resulting in major economic slowdowns. Shifts in human behaviour that might accompany such events, such as decreased travel and industrial activity, can be accompanied by marked environmental changes.

This publication highlights interactions between the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Environmental Degradation and the Transmission and Deadliness of COVID-19

According to the World Health Organization, all currently available evidence suggests that the virus that causes COVID-19 was transmitted from animals to humans. Environmental degradation appears to be an important factor in such transmissions.

Recently published research in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Biological Sciences) provides evidence that the human activities that cause wildlife species declines – such as habitat degradation and loss, hunting, and illegal wildlife trade – facilitate the transmission of viruses from animals to humans. In addition, the research shows that the risk of virus transmission is high from species that have “expanded their range by adapting to human-dominated landscapes.” This suggests that conservation initiatives that reduce interactions between humans and wildlife species could be important to preventing future pandemics from viruses carried by wildlife.

Environmental degradation can also contribute to the health impact of respiratory diseases like COVID-19. Fine particulate air pollution – resulting from fuel combustion by vehicles and industrial facilities – is already linked to a higher risk of death from other respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. With respect to COVID-19, early studies are showing similar trends. For example, a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study of 3,080 counties in the United States linked long-term exposure to fine particulate air pollution with an increased likelihood of dying if COVID-19 is contracted. Similarly, a study from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany found that 78% of coronavirus deaths in Italy, Spain, France and Germany occurred in the regions with the heaviest nitrogen dioxide air pollution. Such links between air pollution and public health outcomes from pandemics demonstrate the benefits of pollution reduction beyond environmental quality.

Reduction in Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Other Air Pollutants During Major Economic Downturns

The World Meteorological Organization cautions that although previous economic crises have led to decreases in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, they have often been followed by recoveries that pushed emissions to levels higher than they were before the crises.

For example, during the “Great Recession” that resulted from the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and cement production declined by 1.4%. However, these short-term reductions were more than offset by the subsequent economic rebound, and annual GHG emissions were higher than ever by 2010 (see Figure 1). The Economist explained the situation as follows:

… analysis has shown that the rise of emissions after the crisis of 2008 was caused especially by rapid growth in certain large emerging economies, notably those of China and India. Low fossil-fuel prices were part of the cause. But there were also stimulus packages deliberately intended to promote carbon-intensive areas of business, such as construction.

Figure 1 – Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions, 1990-2016, Indicating the Last Economic Crisis and Agreements of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The graph shows total global greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2016. Emissions start at 35,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents in 1990 and gradually increase to just below 50,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents by 2016. The graph indicates the signing of milestone agreements of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: the Rio Declaration in 1992, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, and the Paris Agreement in 2015. Also indicated is the Great Recession, which started between 2007 and 2008. The graph shows that, although emissions had been increasing for the previous years, emissions were flat between 2008 and 2009 during the resultant economic downturn. However, this change was short-lived as, by 2009 to 2010, emissions resumed their increase.

Source: Figure prepared by the authors using PiktoChart and information from ClimateWatch, Historical GHG Emissions.
Note 1: The Great Recession lasted from December 2007 to June 2009 in the United States, but from November 2008 to May 2009 in Canada.
Note 2: MtCO2e refers to megatonnes of total greenhouse gases measured in carbon dioxide equivalents. Carbon dioxide equivalents are calculated by multiplying the emissions of each particular greenhouse gas by the global warming potential of that gas.

Many jurisdictions have implemented measures during the COVID-19 pandemic that limit travel and public gatherings to help reduce the spread of the virus. Consequently, the International Air Transport Association reported that, as of 12 April 2020, domestic flights had decreased 70% globally since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Connecting virtually as opposed to travelling long distances for work has begun to be seen by some as a “new normal.” If such practices continue following the pandemic, some related emissions could remain reduced.

Meeting Targets for Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions and Transitioning to a Low Carbon Economy Through the COVID-19 Pandemic and Recovery

The COVID-19 pandemic coincides with an even greater urgency for climate action than was the case during the Great Recession (2007-2008). As seen in Figure 1, the signing of international agreements to reduce GHG emissions (e.g. the Paris Agreement) has not yet led to the significant decreases in emissions recommended by the majority of climate scientists.

In its 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) advised that the global community will be left to deal with much more dire consequences of climate change if GHG emissions are not adequately reduced and warming increases to 2oC above pre-industrial levels. Examples include the loss of whole ecosystems, the virtual extinction of coral reefs and the displacement of an additional 10 million people.

The IPCC has urged countries to restrict GHG emissions so that global warming does not exceed 1.5°C above pre-industrialized levels. To accomplish this, carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and must reach net zero around 2050, requiring “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land use, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. The IPCC noted that these efforts would also “provide direct and immediate population health benefits” by improving air quality through the reduction of emissions in addition to carbon dioxide.

The World Meteorological Organization emphasizes that the temporary reduction in GHG emissions that may result from COVID-19 is not a substitute for the sustained action that is needed to slow the growing impacts of climate change, such as increasing extreme weather occurrences.

As part of plans to meet their Paris Agreement GHG reduction targets, many countries have expressed an intention to shift to a low-carbon economy, and international organizations have urged leaders to not lose sight of this goal as they emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, suggested that people see the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to boost economic recovery in a way that is green, is climate resilient, and considers gender equality. Similarly, in her address for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, United Nations Climate Chief Patricia Espinosa urged nations to embrace a sustainable economic recovery for the COVID-19 pandemic. The executive director of the International Energy Agency, Dr. Fatih Birol, appealed for COVID-19 economic recovery stimulus to have an emphasis on forms of clean energy, since the threat posed by climate change, “requires us to reduce global emissions significantly this decade.”

Authors: Sarah Yakobowski, Daniele Lafrance and Alison Clegg, Library of Parliament