Coronavirus’ Impact on Environment – The Big Picture – RSTV IAS UPSC

  • IASbaba
  • April 22, 2020
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The Big Picture- RSTV, UPSC Articles
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Coronavirus’ Impact on Environment



General Studies 2

  • Global Pandemic – COVID-19

General Studies 3

  • Environment and Climate Change

In News: In a matter of months, the world has been transformed. Thousands of people have died, and hundreds of thousands more have fallen ill, from a coronavirus that was previously unknown before appearing in the city of Wuhan in December 2019. For millions of others who have not caught the disease, their entire way of life has been changed by it.

  • In China, emissions fell 25% at the start of the year as people were instructed to stay at home, factories shuttered and coal use fell by 40% at China’s six largest power plants since the last quarter of 2019. The proportion of days with “good quality air” was up 11.4% compared with the same time last year in 337 cities across China.
  • In Europe, satellite images show nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions fading away over northern Italy. A similar story is playing out in Spain and the UK.
  • Global carbon emissions from the fossil fuel industry could fall by a record 2.5 bn tonnes this year, a reduction of 5%, as the coronavirus pandemic triggers the biggest drop in demand for fossil fuels on record. 

Let us explore the various factors around it…

Travel restrictions

With lockdown in several countries, and reduced travel during the pandemic, these emissions will stay lowered. But when these measures are eventually lifted, it might not be the case. Also, travelling within cities are restricted owing to social distancing, forcing people to work from home.

Frequent flying forms a large part of the carbon footprint for people who do it regularly, so these emissions could simply come back if people return to their old habits. And when the offices open, especially in larger cities around the world, the fear of moving away from crowded places might lead to more people opting for exclusive travel, thereby increasing emissions from the level it was at earlier. 

Historic epidemics

Throughout history, the spread of disease has been linked to lower emissions – even well before the industrial age. So, this is not the first time that we are witnessing this phenomenon.

  • Epidemics such as the Black Death in Europe in the 14th Century, and the epidemics of diseases such as smallpox brought to South America with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th Century, both left subtle marks on atmospheric CO2 levels. Those changes were the result of the high death rates from disease and, in the case of the conquest of the Americas, from genocide.
  • Other studies have found that these deaths meant that large tracts of previously cultivated land was abandoned, growing wild and sinking large quantities of CO2.

Today, it is largely due to reduced industrial activity, which contributes carbon emissions on a comparable scale to transport. Combined emissions from industrial processes, manufacturing and construction make up 18.4% of global anthropogenic emissions. The financial crash of 2008-09 led to an overall dip in emissions of 1.3%. But this quickly rebounded by 2010 as the economy recovered, leading to an all-time high.

Health Systems:

  • Well-resourced, equitable health systems with a strong and supported health workforce are essential to protect us from health security threats, including climate change. 
  • The austerity measures that have strained many national health systems over the past decade will have to be reversed if economies and societies are to be resilient and prosperous in an age of change. 
  • For example, many Iranian lives could have been saved at the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, if its beleaguered healthcare system had been better prepared for what was to come.

Inequality in Society

  • Inequality is a major barrier in ensuring the health and wellbeing of people, and how social and economic inequality materializes in unequal access to healthcare systems
  • For example, the health threat of the novel coronavirus is, on average, greater for cities and people exposed to higher levels of pollution, which are most often people living in poorer areas. 
  • The same is true for the health impacts of climate change, with one of its major causes, the burning of fossil fuels, also adding pollution to the air and disproportionately impacting the health of those in poverty.

Change in Habits: 

  • Times of change can lead to the introduction of lasting habits, and this time it might lead to habits that are coincidentally good for the climate – travelling less or, perhaps, cutting down on food waste as we experience shortages due to stockpiling. 
  • It has also forced us to dramatically change our behaviour in order to protect ourselves and those around us, to a degree most of us have never experienced before. Even though climate change presents a slower, more long-term health threat, an equally dramatic and sustained shift in behaviour will be needed to prevent irreversible damage.

The Shift in Perspective: If we want to, we can

  • Many communities have come forward and taken big steps to protect each other from the health crisis. 
  • The speed and extent of the response has given some hope that rapid action could also be taken on climate change if the threat it poses was treated as urgently. 
  • Crises like these offer an opportunity for a regained sense of shared humanity, in which people realize what matters most: the health and safety of their loved ones, and by extension the health and safety of their community, country and fellow global citizens. 
  • Both the climate crisis and unfolding pandemic threaten this one thing we all care about.


With the toll of early deaths, the pandemic has brought widespread job losses and threatened the livelihoods of millions as businesses struggle to cope with the restrictions being put in place to control the virus. Economic activity has stalled and stock markets have tumbled alongside the falling carbon emissions. It’s the precisely opposite of the drive towards a decarbonised, sustainable economy that many have been advocating for decades. But it a wake-up call for sure!

Connecting the Dots:

  1. Will the coronavirus pandemic lead to longer-lasting falls in emissions? Discuss.
  2. Can development and environment protection co-exist? Comment.
  3. Public health is a political choice. Comment.

Essay topics:

  1. If there is hope for our climate, it is pinned on communities. 
  2. All health shocks have one feature in common: they hit the poorest and the most vulnerable the hardest.

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