Amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed thousands of lives and spurred restrictions that affect more than one third of the world’s population, environmental sustainability may not be the first thing on everyone’s minds.
To illustrate, much of the world is experiencing job loss, supply shortages everywhere from grocery stores to hospitals and a collective fear of contracting a deadly virus. Nevertheless, it is still crucial to assess human levels of consumption and promote sustainable lifestyles during and after the current pandemic. For one, a clear connection exists between human activity and infectious diseases.
Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China in Dec. 2019, the world has seen a decline in emissions because of an adherence to a more minimalist lifestyle during quarantine. Trends from previous economic disasters and pandemics, however, show the eventual rebound in emissions once economic activity and industrial practices restart.
In addition to emissions, other forms of human activity including agricultural practices, deforestation and emissions also contribute to global warming. Rises in global temperatures impact animal migrations, which increase the spread of germs according to the United Nations Environment Programme. In order to combat future infectious diseases and protect the planet, we must tackle factors that contribute to climate change.
Emissions have fallen since COVID-19 began
While a global pandemic that puts millions of people at risk of infection, death and economic failure is not a sustainable or ethical solution to regulating climate, the lack of non-essential human activity has significantly benefited aspects of the environment such as air quality, according to the news platform BBC. In locations such as New York where production has stopped and people face travel restrictions pollution levels are down by approximately 50% since the same time last year because of containment efforts. In addition, China’s six biggest power plants experienced a 40% decrease in coal use since the last quarter of 2019.
The ultimate hope is that we continue to reduce greenhouse gases and keep emissions down after the pandemic ceases.
Unfortunately, people have not always taken initiatives to preserve periods of lower emissions. After the 2008 financial crash, global
emissions dropped by 1.3% as a result of decreased industrial activity, but quickly rose and reached a record high by 2010 as the economy repaired, according to BBC. The same source said an emphasis on clean energy, energy which originates from renewable resources such as the sun and wind, could lessen the rebound in emissions after the COVID-19 pandemic. After first assisting families, businesses and communities hit hardest by the disease, an article from the sustainable global activism organization World Bank said governments should channel resources and financial support to help countries rebuild sustainable economies and industries that rely less on fossil fuels. The source said countries can use projects already in existence as well as adaptation plans for climate change outlined in the Paris Agreement.
Ecosystem destruction and high demand for animal products increases spread of disease
In addition to using clean energy, it is also necessary to evaluate how human-created emissions and other activities affect ecosystems and the role animal migrations have in spreading dangerous diseases such as COVID-19.
As the earth continues to warm and humans clear vast areas of land for agricultural purposes and increased industrialization, animals of all sizes from both the land and sea are forced to travel toward the poles to escape the heat, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The Harvard article said these migrations are abnormal and increase the chances for pathogens to spread and infect new hosts.
Humans can also contract diseases that originate in animals from factory farms, which create breeding grounds for germs and diseases. Unsanitary conditions from raising livestock closely together, administering antibiotics when animals don’t need them for health and creating stressful environments for farm animals can weaken their immune systems, which increases their vulnerability for infections, according to an article from the news platform, The Week.
Furthermore, diseases such as salmonella, E. coli and MRSA can travel from factory farms to consumers through water, air, farm workers, animal feces and, of course, the food product itself, according to the environmental activism organization One Green Planet. A decrease in meat consumption could lower the risk for widespread pandemics because there would be fewer opportunities for animal infections to spread to people.
Minimizing meat consumption would also lower greenhouse gas emissions as animals release methane, a toxic greenhouse gas, during digestion. Livestock agriculture is the second greatest contributor behind fossil fuels to human-created greenhouse gas emissions, according to the communication network organization Climate Nexus, which collaborates with fields such as science, journalism and government to create climate awareness.
Air pollution increases risk for respiratory diseases
Aside from contributing to global warming, greenhouse gases pollute the air, which increases people’s risk for more severe cases of COVID-19, pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses than those who breathe clean air, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
People who breathe dirtier air are about twice as likely to die from Severe acute respiratory syndrome, which is closely related to COVID-19, according to one study.
The article from Harvard also said individuals who live in areas with chronic air pollution and are either homeless, lack air filtration in their homes or already have underlying health conditions are at an increased risk for illnesses associated with contaminated air.
Although the growing human population increases the risk for the spread of diseases because it means more people are living closely together in big cities and traveling across the world sharing germs, the article from Harvard said the incredible strain humans have placed upon the natural world and the climate in the past century is the more probable reason for the increase in infectious diseases such as COVID-19.
Sustainable lifestyles necessary to prevent infectious disease
While these are extremely tense, overwhelmingly stressful times, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the power individuals, communities and national and international governments have to implement efficient changes and respond to a threatening global emergency. Group responses toward containing COVID-19 have given some climate and sustainability activists hope for long-term climate improvements, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
“If we can take action against an unexpected pandemic, we can take action against climate change.”
As COVID-19 has demonstrated, it is possible for large groups and organizations of people all over the world to come together and make a difference during a crisis. If we can take action against an unexpected pandemic, we can take action against climate change. The time has come to start viewing the environment and human health as two interconnected components of life on earth.
If we ignore this fundamental connection, we will continue to watch as our natural world is forced to shift and fade away, and we will see the results our actions have on the health of global communities.
In what ways do you see the environmental connection between COVID-19 and human activities? Let us know in the comments below.