A man walks along a closed pier on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu on March 28, 2020.
A man walks along a closed pier on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu on March 28, 2020.

Pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have decreased across the globe, as countries strive to contain the spread of the coronavirus by ordering people to stay at home.

Among the many unknown facts about this new virus is what kind of long-term impact it will have on the environment.

Since the outbreak in December 2019 and the subsequent pandemic, businesses have shuttered, airlines have slashed services, and more and more people are working from home or not working at all, cutting traffic to a minimum.

The global shutdown has inadvertently become an experiment in the reduction of greenhouse gases.

NASA recently released satellite data of the northeastern U.S., revealing a 30% drop in air pollution over densely populated metropolitan areas. Nitrogen dioxide from transportation fossil fuels and electricity generation shows that March 2020 has the lowest emission levels on record since 2005.

NASA Aura satellite in orbit, artist conception
NASA Satellite Spots Less Air Pollution on US East Coast
Coronavirus-related shutdowns could be the cause, but more analysis will be performed

In Wuhan, China, the manufacturing hub where the outbreak began, NASA reported that pollution levels have lowered between 10% and 30% since eastern and central China's lockdown in late January.

Northern Italy, another industrial and high-traffic region, has seen nitrogen dioxide levels drop about 40% since early March when its quarantine began.

"It just shows you where the air pollution comes from," Dr. John Balmes, a medical professor and national spokesperson for the American Lung Association, told VOA. It "comes from motor vehicles and industrial sources that, with the economy basically shut down, we have a lot less emission from those sources."

Some environmentalists see this as an opportunity to make significant strides in preventing serious outcomes from climate change. Others say that while the global shelter-in-place orders have resulted in a widely reported climate benefit of cleaner air, the fallout from the global health crisis hasn't been positive for the environment across the board.

Increase in plastic waste

Plastic waste has become an issue, as some cities across the globe have halted recycling programs, while officials worry about the risk of spreading the virus in recycling centers.

In Europe, waste disposal options have been reduced. In Italy, infected residents have been banned from sorting waste.

Adding to the increase in plastic waste is the high demand for essential products such as bottled water, face masks, medical gloves, sanitary wipes and hand sanitizer.

FILE - A woman wearing a face mask and a plastic bag pulls a cart loaded with bags of recyclables through the streets of Lower Manhattan during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus In New York City, April 16, 2020.

Though many companies over the past few years have made strides in reducing the demand for single-use plastic products, some companies have since reverted to these products to help reduce contamination, even though environmental experts warn that single-use plastics can carry viruses and bacteria.

New York has postponed its ban on single plastic bags. Starbucks temporarily blocked customers from getting refills in their own reusable cups, according to Waste360, a U.S.-based waste industry association. Instead, refills are served in paper cups.

With so many consumers social distancing at home, there has been a surge in household waste, as people shop online and order deliverable meals that require a lot of packaging.

Medical waste from hospitals is also on the rise. During a recent press conference hosted by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, it was reported that hospitals in Wuhan, China, are producing more than 200 tons of waste a day compared to the pre-pandemic amount of fewer than 50 tons a day.

Long-term impact

Experts say it is difficult to predict how long the pandemic will last and what its overall environmental and economic impact will be.

Balmes, of the American Lung Association, said the uncertainty was worrisome.

FILE - Framed by saguaro cactus, the downtown Phoenix skyline is easier to see, as fewer motorists in Arizona are driving, following the state stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus, April 7, 2020.

"What I'm concerned about is that there may be public support for cleaner transportation and cleaner power generation, but the economy is going to need a ramp up," he said. "And I'm concerned that there's going to be sort of a big surge in emissions as the economy ramps up. But we should be able to do both — ramp up the economy and be careful about increasing emissions."

Balmes is not the only expert worried about the possible high post-pandemic fossil fuel emissions.

Mathis Wackermagel, founder of the Global Footprint Network, warned about the potential spike in emissions. Even after quarantine and other emergency precautions are lifted, fossil fuels will remain relatively cheap, causing a global rush to obtain this resource in order to restabilize countries' economies, Wackermagel recently said in an interview on KCRW-FM in Los Angeles, California.

In a recent blog, Global Footprint Network CEO Laurel Hanscom wrote: "Sustainability, we have often said, will be achieved eventually — either by disaster or by design. As streets are emptied and planes are grounded, air pollution has gone down, and the global carbon footprint has decreased. This is not what we had in mind."

Balmes agrees that the way forward is in making better decisions.

"I hope that as a society, we get the big picture that we should be getting more serious about climate change," he said. 
 

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