A silver lining to the COVID-19 lockdown?

Late March through early May brought a brief glimpse of the impact reduced human activity might have on the environment. Aided by an informal survey on the Boffa Miskell social media channels, biosecurity consultant Kate Heaphy considers 'where to from here?'

The word pandemic is associated with negative consequences of global proportion.  Indeed, there are many: job losses, debt, recession and the still-increasing death toll. Amongst all the negatives that plague our news, there is a small ray of hope – the ecological and environmental benefits of COVID-19 and an aspiration for a better, greener future.

We have seen first-hand the impact we are having on the environment, due to the pandemic and the lockdown response many countries implemented. All over the globe, cars remained parked in their garages, planes in their hangers and factories shut overnight. We learnt that, when given a chance, the quality of the environment can improve in a remarkably short timeframe.

Compare satellite imagery of Asia before and after the lockdown, and you will see a dramatic reduction in air pollution. Multiple papers (including Huang et al., 2020) have already been published quantifying greenhouse gas emissions in China during their lockdown, including sharp declines in carbon emissions (by about 25%) and nitrogen dioxide levels (by more than 60%). Similar improvements in air quality, primarily linked to the reduction in human activities such as aviation and road-based travel, have also been seen in the UK and around Europe.

Improved air quality both improves habitat quality and has direct ecological benefits for wildlife. For example, air pollution substantially reduces the strength and longevity of floral scents, making it difficult for bees to find flowers. This is problematic for both the bees and the nearly 90% of flowering plants that require the services of animal pollinators, of which bees form a large proportion (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). With reduced air pollution, it has been suggested that bees can make shorter, more profitable trips, which may help them rear more young. Given the large role that bees play in pollination, steps towards stopping their global decline is a crucial focus of biodiversity conservation.

Many of us made our own observations from our lockdown bubbles. Respondents from an informal Boffa Miskell social media survey thought the lockdown had moderately positive effect on ecology and the environment. Nearly all respondents noticed less traffic noise and three-quarters reported more birds.

The quieter environment, along with reduced human activity, resulted in noticeable behavioural changes in wildlife. Wildlife became bolder, moving into cities and places they previously avoided. Some changes such as abundant songbirds are welcome, while others, such as increased rats… not so much.

Marine environments were also quieter due to reduced shipping, benefitting marine life. Recreational boating and fishing were banned in the Waitemata Harbour during Alert Levels 4 and 3, during which rays, orca, flocks of seabirds and large schools of fish were all reported, the likes of which long-time Aucklanders had not seen since their childhoods.

Reduced shipping noise is known to be less stressful for whales, and individuals are able to communicate with each other over much greater distances. The effects of lockdown on whale populations may be similar to those observed when shipping ceased following the tragic 9/11 attacks in 2001; a study linked a reduction in stress hormones in North Atlantic right whales in the Bay of Fundy to the 6-decibel decrease in underwater noise.

It also seems our own behaviours and attitudes regarding the environment have changed. COVID-19 restrictions forced us to alter our behaviours, and many of us became more aware of nature. Nearly 90% of respondents in our survey said they noticed more people walking and biking. Observing more birds, hearing less traffic noise and seeing more people being active outside are the changes respondents would most like to see continue.

Encouragingly, at the individual level, people seem willing to continue some of the positive practices they have adopted. Approximately 70% of respondents in our survey said they will continue travelling less for work, by holding meetings over Skype or Zoom, and over 40% said they will take holidays locally rather than overseas.

At the governmental level, COVID-19 has presented the ideal opportunity to forge a more sustainable future as the New Zealand government plans ‘shovel-ready’ projects to boost the economy, provide employment and work towards lowering our emissions to meet the climate change targets we agreed to in the Paris accord (to keep global warming under 2°C and ideally below 1.5°C). Government funds to boost the economy should be directed towards increasing the number of environmental-related jobs such as pest control and conservation, and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, such as through boosting the development of green technologies, investing in public transport, and facilitating walking and cycling.

But when the pandemic passes, what are the chances of learning from our observations? Will we take this opportunity to develop a sustainable future, or will we simply revert back to ‘business as usual’?

Among the most interesting finds of our survey was that respondents said they now placed a moderately higher value on ecology and the environment than before the lockdown, and are more aware of the ecological impacts we are having. Importantly, the pandemic has shown that change is possible, and that people are able and willing to adapt.

Perhaps the environmental benefits we’ve seen during lockdown are not a silver lining of a global crisis, but rather, a golden opportunity to assess our priorities, demonstrate kindness, live by our values, and work towards a future that is both environmentally and economically sustainable. It is up to us, at both the individual level and the governmental level, to take it.

27 July 2020