What is COVID-19 Doing to the Environment?

by Damore Samuels, Intern

In recent decades, climate change has become a major concern for environmentalists, policymakers, and the public. As COVID-19 shut down businesses, travel and governments around the world, greenhouse gas emissions dropped — giving many the impression that the pandemic could potentially benefit the environment.  According to a study in the journal Nature, “Daily global emissions decreased by -17% by April 2020,” the lowest levels recorded since 2006. Additionally, the researchers found that by the end of the year, the world might see its largest annual drop of greenhouse emissions since World War II. While this data may look promising for our climate efforts, new findings about the pandemic’s effect on the environment are showing that there is more to the story.

Many environmental organizations and scientists have recently called attention to an increase in deforestation, illegal mining, and poaching by people taking advantage of governments focusing on the pandemic. Due to COVID-19, governments burdened with pandemic response and conservation groups strained for resources have had difficulty monitoring and enforcing these environmental regulations.

Illegal mining and severe food shortages have also affected wildlife — painting a more complete picture around images on the internet of animals wandering off their natural habitats. In WBUR’s article on the issue, Colorado State University professor Edward Barbier states that the wandering of exotic animals could lead to more disease transmission. He states, “When you exploit, trade and consume wildlife, then you come more in contact with them… Not only are we impacting rural livelihoods of local communities by destroying tropical forests and other ecosystems, we’re actually increasing the risk of future disease transmission from wildlife to people.” Barbier uses his conversation with the media to suggest that some of the federal money the U.S. is spending for pandemic relief go towards helping countries prevent illegal environmental exploitation.

Many of the articles I read seem to show extreme concern for this issue, but many of them do not yet provide long-term solutions. It is clear that environmental exploitation during COVID-19 is just beginning to receive media attention, which may explain why the public and policymakers have not loudly called for stricter enforcement of regulations. Still, environmental organizations such as Conservation International are finding ways to spread their message about potential solutions for deforestation and climate change. As they discuss on their blog, the organization’s Herding 4 Health program will be working alongside farmers to “help degraded rangelands recover and become more resilient to climate change and natural disasters.”

Another foundation that is raising awareness about deforestation during COVID-19 is The Rainforest Foundation. In a statement published during the early stages of the pandemic, they make similar points to Barbier: “Deforestation and the climate crisis are putting increased pressure on wildlife-human interactions and are a clear and strong driver of infectious disease transmission.” It is clear that they recognize the potential health risk of deforestation and they make it their priority to help lower those risks. They are also supporting Indigenous leaders in Roraima State in Brazil who are calling for the removal of illegal miners in their territories through a campaign called #MinersOutCovidOut.

By listening to scientific experts and environmental organizations who are leading these conversations, we can help prevent future pandemics and save the environment. We must recognize that ignoring this issue jeopardizes the existence of the human population and it is time to take immediate action. I believe that the more we communicate about these issues, the more solutions can be made.

Thank you to our intern Damore Samuels for her hard work this summer!

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