This story is part of a special In Focus series taking an in-depth look at the impact of the pandemic.
It was in late February Professor Corinne Le Quéré first remembers being asked how coronavirus could affect the environment.
‘I kind of ducked the question, thinking, “This will blow over,”‘ she admits, ‘How big can it be?’
Nine months on, Covid-19 — then not even declared a pandemic — has changed the world, and is now seen by some environmentalists as the most significant event in decades.
‘Nature is healing’, the memes said, as planes were grounded, commuting put into a global holding pattern and eating habits dramatically altered – even as plastic waste sky-rocketed and some used the pandemic as a cover to increase deforestation.
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As the world hesitantly looks towards a ‘new normal’, many see the recovery as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to head off catastrophic climate change, while others fear the biggest recession in centuries will force governments to prioritise economic growth at all costs.
So what impact will coronavirus have on the environment? And what effect has it already had – particularly on the rainforests, waste, emissions and our diets?
‘The big question, the one that matters hugely,’ world-leading emissions expert Professor Le Quéré argues, ‘Is what are world governments going to do in response to the pandemic?
‘What are we going to do now? Are we going to respond to the current climate crisis in the same way we did in 2009 [after the economic crash], without a vision, without strategy, focussing on the here and now only?
‘Or are we going to “get it” this time?’
The short answer is: it is just too early to tell. But the long-term solution will rely heavily on what happens to places like the Amazon, a major carbon sink being cut down for its resources at an alarming rate.
Activists and investigative journalists couldn’t have hoped for a clearer admission when Brazil’s environment minister called the pandemic an ‘opportunity’ to loosen laws protecting the rainforest on camera.
Video footage of a government meeting shows Ricardo Salles saying: ‘We need to make an effort while we are in this calm moment in terms of press coverage, because they are only talking about Covid, and push through and change all the rules and simplify norms.’
In the clip, ordered for release by the Supreme Court in May, he said the government had the chance to pass ‘infra-legal reforms’ while the eyes of the media, and pretty much everyone else, were focused on the spread of coronavirus.
Lucia Ortiz, president of Friends of the Earth Brazil, says Salles is ‘very much linked to the agri-business sector’, which is looking to occupy even more land in the Amazon and mine it for resources.
While this phenomenon is nothing new, she suggests the pandemic is acting as a convenient smokescreen to ramp up the pace of deforestation to record levels.
The pandemic is a convenient smokescreen to ramp up deforestation
An estimated 464 square miles of tree cover was slashed from the Amazon between January and April this year – roughly 20 times the size of Manhattan and a 55% increase on the same period in 2019, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.
Between August last year and May 2020, deforestation across Brazil was up 72% compared to one year ago, amounting to more than half a square mile of deforestation per hour.
As indigenous people notice themselves ‘surrounded by even more fires’, Ms Ortiz says the government have been assigning more and more unsympathetic figures from military backgrounds to all of its departments.
Funding has been decreased for FUNAI – the government agency assigned to protect indigenous people – and on top of that, visiting health officials have brought coronavirus to these vulnerable communities.
Community leaders have died as a result, while others including Ninawa Huni Kui, who has an expansive knowledge of the rainforest, were hospitalised, persuading many tribespeople to isolate completely.
They have all the more reason to, says Greenpeace Brazil Amazon campaigner Romulo Batista, who explains how Brazil’s indigenous people are more ‘immunologically sensitive to diseases’, having spent so many generations disconnected from other societies.
Tribespeople have in the past attempted to prevent illegal logging of protected areas, patrolling their territory and reporting environmental violations, but now many are simply not willing to take the risk.
Mr Batista adds: ‘Illegal loggers and land grabbers are not isolating, these guys still come to the forest and carry out deforestation.’
With many activists also trying to practice social distancing, this gives a distinct advantage to those who ignore the rules, who are given a sense of impunity by a sympathetic government, he adds.
Mike Barrett, executive director of conservation and science at WWF, warns pillaging of nature could make us more vulnerable to pandemics in the future.
He says research over the past six months points to an increasing outbreaks of zoonotic diseases such as Ebola, swine flu and avian flu, all of which are associated with wildlife.
The more we encroach into ‘untouched parts of the world’ the greater the risk of being exposed to ‘reservoirs of as yet unknown viruses’, he warns.
Mr Barrett says more trading of wildlife increases this danger, as does using newly cut down rainforest territory to raise vast quantities of livestock.
He adds: ‘It’s the ultimate petri-dish, you’re creating the perfect conditions for the spread of diseases.’
Last year was ‘disastrous’ for deforestation in Brazil, says Mr Barrett, with the country losing more than 9,700 square kilometres of its 60% share of the Amazon.
We are exposing reservoirs of as yet unknown viruses
Coronavirus can’t be held solely responsible for the problem, but he asks why deforestation continues to soar in key parts of the world, given what we now know about the risk of damage to the eco-system and future outbreaks.
He adds: ‘It’s not necessarily the case that the pandemic is driving increased deforestation, that has been going up for a while, it’s more the fact that it shows us the jeopardy and yet it reveals that nothing is being done, which is truly shocking.’
Far away from the forests of South America, in the comfort of her home in south London, the co-leader of the Green Party tells Metro.co.uk the key change she noticed during lockdown was in emissions.
‘One thing that we really noticed during lockdown was the lack of traffic and in London the lack of air traffic, because suddenly there was quiet skies,’ says Sian Berry.
Indeed, at the height of global confinement, scientists suggest countries had reduced their emissions by an average of 26% during their periods of lockdown.
According to analysis by Professor Le Quéré’s team, that meant global CO2 emissions had plummeted 17% – an unprecedented carbon crash.
But it only took the world to emissions levels last seen in 2006 – nowhere near the drop needed to avoid the 2C of warming since pre-industrial times, which the Paris Agreement sets out as the cut-off point to avoid runaway environmental changes.
Reducing emissions, notably in air travel, is seen as key to stopping it. Environmentalists were left watching on in horror as empty planes took off during lockdown, to make sure airlines could keep their landing slots.
The University of East Anglia’s Professor Le Quéré warns: ‘This drop in emissions, as impressive as it is, will do nothing to slow climate change,’ arguing structural change, not short-term forced behavioural changes, are needed.
A drop in emissions, as impressive as it is, will do nothing to slow climate change
And in an update of the analysis in mid-June, her team found that the decrease in daily emissions was already up to -5% compared to -17% two months earlier. Despite what the World Meteorological Organisation branded a ‘tiny blip’ in emissions (it estimates 4.2% – 7.5% this year), CO2 levels have still hit record levels this year.
In the UK, people noted the cleaner air they were breathing as the economy shut down – and the array of health benefits linked to it, while the EU has since said lockdowns have significantly improved air quality across the continent’s cities.
Less commuting also reduced noise pollution, made cycling and walking easier and meant people saw more of the natural world around them.
But despite calls for a ‘green recovery’ and to rebuild the economy with climate change in mind, Professor Le Quéré’s analysis suggests that worldwide we are heading back towards pre-pandemic levels on emissions. China has been criticised for its part in that change, with some experts slamming a ‘dirty recovery’ and warning that it could set a precedent for the rest of the world, the majority of which was hit by later outbreaks.
Yet Ms Berry strikes a more upbeat tone, even on commuting, with many opting to use cars over public transport on health grounds.
There is a possibility of a different world
She argues: ‘It [lockdown] does show that if we can just cut out half as much of the traffic that we cut out in that period, we would have the most amazing opportunities to use the streets for different things.
‘It has shown everybody that there is the possibility of a different world.
‘With the right policies in place you can make such a big change and almost start from a new starting point, [that] is really something.’
While statistics about carbon emissions dropping may excite politicians, the public appear far more concerned by the impact the pandemic has had on waste.
The BBC’s crusading show War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita looked on in horror at the scale of the problem, noting that if every Brit used a disposable plastic mask every day for a year that would create 128,000 tonnes of plastic waste.
Sian Sutherland, the co-founder of A Plastic Planet, says all that single-use plastic will either go into landfill, be incinerated or exported to other countries.
She suggests a simple solution: pick a reusable mask – if no one did, Ms Sutherland adds, there would be 3,000 trillion masks used every year globally, to go alongside billions of pieces of plastic PPE ordered by the NHS alone.
Globally, we are using 129 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves every month, according to estimates in a June study.
Many people have taken to initiatives to reduce the problem, like cutting the straps from masks to stop them harming animals.
But Emily Stevenson, the co-founder of social enterprise Beach Guardian, says she has been shocked by the amount of ‘pandemic plastic’, even in isolated northern Cornwall where she lives.
She does regular beach cleans and walks around her local area, during which she records items of litter.
Distressing amounts of pandemic plastic
Having never found a face mask before the pandemic, Miss Stevenson, 23, now says she sees five on average in every weekly beach clean. The problem has been so distressing for some volunteers, she says, that they took a break from helping out.
On her regular walks around her local area, she found six gloves in April – but it is now well over 100 every time.
On July 3, she found 171 gloves, but no masks. Then, after rules on face covering changed, she found 12 face masks on August 6. 25 days later, it was 50 face masks.
At the latest count, she has found 985 gloves and 271 masks since the pandemic began.
‘What worries me is how rapidly this pollutant has emerged. In a matter of weeks to months, we have seen it in vast quantities in the environment,’ she tells Metro.co.uk over Zoom.
She has not personally noticed animals being impacted by the problem, but the RSPCA are among a host of experts highlighting how wildlife has been negatively affected by it.
But Miss Stevenson, who has previously seen plastic gloves in fox poo, remains hopeful that the tide can be turned.
She argues: ‘It took us over half a century to wake up to plastic pollution. Only really over the last couple of years have we thought, “Ah, maybe we shouldn’t have been using it so much,” but with PPE, we’ve only started using it over the last few months.
‘Yes it has got into the environment, but we can also turn it around just as quickly as it has become a problem because the awareness is there.
‘Everybody is talking about it… I think it is a credit to how far we have all come.’
Despite widespread concerns about plastic prior to the pandemic, people appear to be buying more of it, perhaps partly due to hygiene fears.
‘Actually the virus lives longer on plastic than it does on most other materials’, Ms Sutherland explains.
‘Here we are in a world where nearly every world leader is being flanked in public broadcasts by scientists, listening to the scientists in anything to do with Covid-19, and yet, in the world of science on plastic, nobody is listening.’
Environmentalists are deeply concerned by the problem and warn that the amount of plastic waste being created because of coronavirus does outweigh what is being saved by the economic shutdown.
Alexandra Sedgwick, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace, explains: ‘Although shopping habits have changed, consumption of other items with single-use packaging hasn’t plummeted.
‘People have tended to buy more plastic wrapped fruit and veg for example, rather than loose, because of perceptions of hygiene.’
As far as waste goes, most people will tell you their diet changed overnight in March, reducing their plastic footprint. Gone were the meal deals and their packaging, and in came unexpected time at home and a need for homemade food.
With Brits working from home or going on furlough, baking and cooking grew while on-the-go snacks and restaurant numbers dropped (Eat Out to Help Out aside).
But some took the pandemic as their cue to consciously change their own behaviour, seeing the crisis as something caused by humans.
Just as deforestation has been linked to an increase in spread of disease, so has the global meat industry.
The Covid-19 virus is thought to have originated in a wet market in Wuhan, China, while several other pandemics have been linked to the meat industry such as H1N1 swine flu and H5N6 bird flu.
Where factory farming goes, diseases follow
Dr Justine Butler, senior researcher at vegan charity Viva, wrote a report about the risks of modern animal farming techniques regarding pandemics.
‘Three in four new and emerging infectious diseases come from animals, and factory farms as well as wet/wildlife markets are a breeding ground for new diseases,’ she says.
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention also have similar findings, and estimate more than six out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people can be spread from animals.
Dr Butler continues: ‘Scientists have been warning us for years and the 2009 swine flu pandemic should have been a wake-up call. Although it was caused by an avian influenza virus (of avian origin) it emerged from a pig farm in Mexico.
‘Most governments thought the next pandemic would be caused by an avian influenza virus, as most previous ones have (Spanish flu, Asian flu, Hong Kong flu and Swine flu).
‘The danger is, as the world’s population grows, so does the demand for animal foods, and where factory farming goes, diseases follow.
‘It is only a matter of time before the next pandemic and it could be that we actually got off lightly with this one.’
Dr Butler explained how bird flu kills 60% of those it infects, according to the World Health Organisation.
‘Fortunately at the moment, it does not spread easily between people,’ she explains. ‘Since 2003, more than 800 people have been infected with it, and 450 died. Most infections resulted from close contact with poultry (dead or alive).
‘But, a handful of cases have arisen in family members caring for sick relatives. If this virus were to mutate, and become easily spread like Covid-19 for example, the consequences would be catastrophic.
‘The UK government has just raised the risk of bird flu hitting the UK to high. Migratory birds, however, are not to blame – factory farms provide the perfect environment for a mutating virus to emerge.
‘Animals crammed into packed, filthy sheds, suffer from stress and poor immune systems due to the intensive selective breeding done for fast growth. It’s a perfect storm of our own making.’
Software developer Christopher Martin, 37, was so concerned by the potential for more pandemic disease to be spread from animals to humans this way that he went from eating meat ‘every single day’ to being totally vegan.
‘I would consider a meal not substantial enough for me without meat,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.
But in June this year, he decided to make some changes.
I went from eating meat daily to totally vegan
‘I just kind of came to the conclusion that the rational thing to do would be to change my diet, because clearly what we’re doing globally isn’t working, it’s not healthy,’ he says.
‘I never imagined myself becoming vegan. I don’t have vegan friends. I only know of one other person that’s vegan and that’s somebody I’ve met since changing my diet.
‘So it was unexpected. I think the lockdown just gave me that time to pause and take note and do a bit of research into it.’
Explaining his motivations for cutting out animal products, Mr Martin says: ‘I think there are other risks as well for pandemics such as continued deforestation to create crops to feed the animals.
‘We grow enough crops to feed the entire population at the moment, but we feed most of it to animals, which provide us with less food in return.
There could be more pandemics
‘There’s the fact we’re giving animals antibiotics, which could fuel antibiotic resistance.
‘And there could potentially be more pandemics.
‘If we’re increasing our meat consumption globally, that’s going to increase the risk of something like this happening again for sure.’
A UK government spokesperson told Metro.co.uk: ‘It is imperative we build back both better and greener from the coronavirus pandemic – with a renewed and enhanced focus on protecting the environment, reducing emissions and bolstering our resilience to climate change.
‘Work is ongoing in this area, and we have announced £40 million Green Recovery Challenge Fund which will bring forward funding to help charities and environmental organisations start work on projects across England to restore nature and tackle climate change.’
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