The silver lining of COVID-19 – positive environmental impacts

COVID-19 has changed the way of living all over the world. Flights are being cancelled, pubs and restaurants are closed. In the European Union (EU), measures are under way to reinforce the public health sectors and to mitigate the socio-economic impact of the state of emergency. The public focus is on the economy and public health.  This article will consider the environmental aspect of the prevailing situation: shouldn’t there be some positive environmental effects given that people consume and travel less? In sphere of politics, are the EU Member States still ready to hold on their environmental commitments?

Nature is sending us a message”, says UN environment chief Inger Andersen. I think there is some truth in this sentence. It can be argued that the environment was taken to its limits – to the point where it could do nothing else but to scream for help. And the scream has proven to reach its recipients: as a result of the COVID-19, people have been forced to decrease commuting, consuming and travelling abroad. Festivals, concerts and other public events have been cancelled and there is only minimal acitivity from factories and construction sectors. All of this has had its impact on the environment very quickly: air pollution levels in parts of the world have improved, water in canals in some urban areas are clearing for the first time in decades, and wild animals appear in and around big cities, notes Young Champion of the Earth 2019 Marianna Muntianu. The positive environmental impacts do not end to that: according to Simon Evans, the COVID-19 can cause largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions.
On the basis of the above mentioned it can be said that there has already been some positive environmental impacts as a result of the state of emergency that has forced us to give up our old habits. Next, it will be considered whether these behavioral changes could become habits that will last.

From Behavioral Changes to Lasting Habits?

A study led by Corinne Moser at Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland found that when people were unable to drive and given free e-bike access instead, they drove much less when they eventually got their car back. The study proved that times of change can lead to the introduction of lasting habits. This could be true also in the case of COVID-19: there is a lot in this state of emergy for people to take to home with them.
Also, The United Nations (UN) notes that coronavirus can offer a lot of lessons on a personal, regional and global level. The UN says that the COVID-19 shows us the urgency to promote necessary transformations in order for our society to survive in the 21st century. It can not be denied that there is now a momentum for the people to start to reasses their values and to think what really matters. Maybe one realises that happiness is not so much about buying expensive clothes and travelling abroad but about being in good health and taking care of your loved ones. Now it is time to start to take care of each other, support your local ones and to appreciate the small but important things we used to take for granted on a daily basis.
The prevailing situation has already transformed, for instance, the way of working in some sectors. People have realised how easily meetings can be arranged online and that employees can do a lot of their work at home. Thus, in the future, travelling could be used only when truly necessary and people could work more from home. The decrease in commuting and travelling would without doubt have a positive effect on the state of the environment.
There is also a chance for the European Union to highligh the fact that we have now a good possibility to change our consumption behavior and our daily habits for good. And when everybody does their share, the impact is, in the end, huge. It is only with the concrete actions that we can improve the state of the environment.

The Need for Political Commitments Prevails

Although the state of environment may go into a better direction thanks to COVID-19, the need for political commitments prevails. For instance in the case of CO2 emissions, while there are some encouraging news, experts say it sill may not be adequate for meeting the Paris Agreement goals to keep global warming from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius.
If and when the situation with COVID-19 calms down, the state of the environment can go into a worse direction as fast as it went to the better one. As Donna Green, associate professor at University of New South Wales’s Climate Change Research Centre in New Zealand, remarks, the action taken to fight the COVID-19 shows that if we need to take action, we can. This leads to the question why more action is not taken to protect the environment? Do we need another sign from the nature before action will be taken? The Member States can not hide behind the COVID-19 to justify their inaction in the area of environmental protection. It is time to act before its too late – the resources of the planet do not last forever.
Teksti: Heidi Kaarto
Kuva: Free-Photos, Pixabay

The author has a LLM degree in European Law from Leiden University and is specialised in the internal market of the EU. At the moment, she works as a lawyer in a private law firm.