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March 20, 2021 Reading Time: 4 minutes

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic in response to the spread of COVID-19. A few days later, countries across the world imposed draconian lockdown measures, students abroad were swiftly sent packing, and millions of people lost their jobs.

Soon, a heat map of nitrogen dioxide density over China circulated on the Internet – what was once deep orange was now ice blue, demonstrating an immediate drop in pollution. Photos of fish returning to the Venetian canals, peacocks strutting around downtown Mumbai, and endangered Leatherback sea turtles reemerging on Thai beaches clearly demonstrated humans’ impact on the world around us. Air pollution is down, waters are clearer, and biodiversity is rebounding. Right? These examples and more prompted discussion of a rather darkly optimistic topic: would the pandemic – and associated government lockdowns – help nature heal?

Some have been explicit about this rather misanthropic worldview. Last March, a group claiming to represent Extinction Rebellion’s East Midlands chapter shared photos of stickers that stated: “Earth is healing. The air and water is clearing. Corona is the cure. Humans are the disease!” Twitter and Facebook have abounded with posts exalting the environmental benefits of the pandemic. 

Even the World Economic Forum posted an article stating that “COVID-19 has helped the environment.” It’s not hard to see how these extreme views have been influenced by infamous thinkers such as Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich, who popularized the notion of human overpopulation and its supposedly catastrophic impact on the planet. 

Despite the myopic, utopian assumption that nature would surely rebound to its former, pre-human glory, evidence has piled up to the contrary. Now over one year into the pandemic, it’s clear that the virus and government lockdowns didn’t magically solve our environmental problems. More specifically, it didn’t even do so much as nudge us in the right direction. 

While it’s true that carbon emissions did fall approximately 6.4% in 2020, largely due to government lockdowns, atmospheric carbon levels were more or less unaffected by Covid. World Meteorology Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas likened the Covid impact to “just slightly reducing the tap” of carbon emissions flowing into the atmosphere.

In fact, a recent study shows that the smoke emitted by wildfires in 2020 completely offset the clean air gains that came from the pandemic. To make matters worse, government overreaction to the pandemic has actually incentivized unsustainable wildfire management practices. In New Mexico, wildfire managers decided to quickly suppress fires from the get-go, rather than letting some take their natural course as they normally do. The Forest Service also canceled prescribed burns, which are vital in reducing the spread and intensity of future wildfires. Their reasoning? They say they are worried about smoke exacerbating the symptoms of Covid patients in local populations. 

Yet, in the long run, such a narrow-minded approach to the issue will lead to much more damaging wildfires that will ravage entire communities, rather than just the tiny segment of the population affected by the virus. Moreover, with local and national governments obsessively indulging deficit spending to combat the effects of their own lockdowns, fewer resources are available for effective forest management. Expect more widespread, deadly, and destructive wildfires in 2021 as a result. 

While carbon emissions may have slightly decreased in 2020, plastic and other single-use material waste exploded. For example, medical waste in Wuhan before Covid was approximately 45 tons per day. After Covid, it jumped to 247 tons per day. Between masks, alternative forms of PPE such as face shields, and other medical supplies, the virus has essentially mandated an increase in medical waste. Additionally, stringent government regulation forced the restaurant industry to discontinue reusable containers and rely on carry-out and delivery – which, of course, means take-out containers, plastic utensils, sauce packets, and stacks of extra napkins – rather than allowing dine-in customers. Overall, there was 30% more waste in 2020 than there was in 2019. 

In terms of conservation, the pandemic has been even more detrimental. Because governments all but outlawed tourism, there are fewer people on nature preserves in Africa and Asia, leaving poachers almost free reign, while locals are now missing the revenue to protect their local environment. While some zoo animals have performed well without as many visitors, others have gotten sick with less medical care available. Since lockdown orders, illegal mining and logging have been rampant due to a government-mandated lack of enforcement. Deforestation in the Amazon has accelerated. Countless conservation projects and initiatives were abruptly halted, putting vulnerable ecosystems at risk. 

Sure, in the immediate short-term it appeared that nature was rebounding and pollution was diminishing. Yet the above evidence indicates that in many areas, nature and wildlife have actually suffered under this pandemic. Moreover, the emissions reductions much heralded by climate activists are not sustainable. 

We locked down entire economies to reduce our carbon emissions by as little as 6.4%, which is proof that economic degrowth, as some eco-activists have called for, is a ridiculous proposition. Eventually – sooner rather than later with continued global vaccine rollout – we will resume a new normal, which will include commutes to work, plane rides, and other energy-intensive activities. The 2020 reduction in emissions was the result not of a strategic climate response, but of global pain and suffering. As epidemiologist Jill Baumgartner of McGill University warned, “It’s not a sustainable way to reduce air pollution, and the long-term economic and well-being impacts of this crisis are going to be devastating for many people.”

Ultimately, we cannot protect our environment and tackle issues such as climate change by locking down entire economies and causing untold human suffering. In fact, the available evidence shows that nature suffered as a result of the virus and government-imposed lockdowns. As we recover mentally and economically from both the pandemic and statist overreach, we must learn from these lessons.

Christopher Barnard

Christopher Barnard

Christopher Barnard is the National Policy Director at the American Conservation Coalition (ACC).
Christopher  is the Founder of the British Conservation Alliance.
He studied International Relations at The London School of Economics and Political Science.

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