Climate Impact and the Pandemic: What Will the Legacy of 2020 Be?

Alexandra Zalokosta is a Greek third year Medicine student. She is passionate about climate justice, women’s issues and empowerment, and art in all forms. A strong supporter of the power of political discourse, she will debate you on anything. Currently Alexandra is serving as the Environmental Impact & Health Current Event Reporter of The Clandestine.

In the early days of quarantine, we were flooded with theories of how a worldwide lockdown might affect the state of our planet. News stories of nature and wildlife being allowed to return to heavily populated areas, as they emptied, kept us entertained and gave us hope for a silver lining to this very dark time – after all, who doesn’t love seeing a pack of wild goats explore a Welsh town. More globally, the steady drop in the stock price of gas and the worldwide reduction in daily flights seemed to be tangible data showing change; evidence of the, somewhat idealistic, concept that the pandemic would aid in dropping our emissions. Now, about five months since the day COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, there is more data to go on, although it will take a lot longer to answer the main question that I will be exploring. How has this event affected our continuing pursuit to be more environmentally friendly as society? What will be the climate impact and legacy of COVID-19?

As expected, during the months of intensive lockdown, there was a drop in carbon emissions. Majorly, the biggest impact lowering emissions seems to be the decreases in road transport. During their respective lockdowns there was a steep decrease in traffic flows in various major cities globally – namely, Berlin, London, Shanghai, New York, Paris and Milan.1As a result, demand for oil has dropped along with the projected drop in our yearly global carbon emissions. While a small percentage of the global total of emissions, the drop in flights can also be assumed to have some impact, especially as data at the height of the pandemic showed a 90% drop in flights in Europe and about half the flights in the US in comparison with last year’s data.2 All of this, along with the fact that this year demand for coal, electricity and jet-fuel have seen a significant drop, seem to show promise for the future. However, along with the predictions of a drop between 4-8%3 in yearly global carbon emissions for 2020 – possibly dropping as low as they were in 20104 – there comes a lot of doubt as to if we can sustain, to an extent, the positive change seen during these last few months. As cities and countries start reopening, and people are returning to their daily routines once again, the emissions can be seen climbing rapidly to their previous levels.5 Only time will tell if they will rise even further than before as many commuters, now wary of public transportation, are bound to prefer driving their own vehicles when they can. One stark example of this is Greece, wherein official government advice when lockdown was lifted included the suggestion that citizens prefer to use their cars for even short distances, aiming to reduce contact with others.

Moving away from large scale figures, it is also important to explore how this crisis has affected societies themselves with relation to the environment. Over the last few years there have been efforts to encourage shifts in lifestyle choices that may be beneficial for our climate, such as pushes for more plant-based diets, buying locally, moving away from single-use plastics and being mindful of one’s personal carbon footprint. As these last few months have been an extremely disruptive event in our modern history, and this type of global hit has been shown in the past to cause extreme cultural shifts, it is worth investigating how, or if, it has shifted climate-conscious behaviour. On the one hand, one positive example from lockdown can be seen in the UK, where purchase and demand of vegan products increased markedly.6 This data could be an indication of more people attempting to shift to a more plant-based diet, having the time to make this lifestyle adjustment while at home. Additionally, as walking and cycling prevailed many major cities, such as London, have made plans to pedestrianise more of their centres. On the other hand, single-use plastics have come back into our lives in a very big way. News of masks and gloves being found in oceans and rivers unfortunately come as no surprise, but the damage spans wider than just within the realm of PPE.7 For example, the US have temporarily suspended 50 bills for limiting single-use plastics and is showing a dramatic increase in usage of plastic bags as well as an increase in household waste. Many businesses have switched back from reusable items in the name of hygiene, while the Plastics Industry Association have made claims that single-use plastics are the “most sanitary” solution.8

So, this is the image we have. I am very sorry to say that it is a blurry one. It will, unfortunately, take a long time for us to be able to draw a firm conclusion as to what the climate legacy of this year will be. There is no silver lining to be found, but our reality, as messy as it is, shows promise in its own way. There is no intervention by nature that will either help or destroy us, there is only decisive action that will preserve this planet. 

Sources cited


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