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The global spread of the coronavirus has changed more than daily routines and social interaction — the changes in our daily lives by COVID-19 are impacting the environment and climate change.
Dr. Julie Snow, professor of geography, geology and the environment, said energy usage is the largest contributor to global climate change. The burning of fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, but travel has decreased dramatically since the spread of the coronavirus began. Because travel has been limited in the United States and internationally, carbon dioxide production has also decreased.
“The coronavirus has slowed down the world economy because people are forced to remain at home; they’re not driving cars, they’re not traveling, businesses and schools are closed,” Snow said. “Our energy usage in all of those sectors has dropped.”
She said the long-term impact of COVID-19 on global climate change depends on how countries decide to reinstate business. The short-term impact, however, is already very noticeable, according to Snow.
“If we look at a more immediate impact, the reduction in air pollution in many of the world’s largest cities is dramatic,” Snow said. “This creates immediate relief for people who suffer from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Worldwide, 4.6 million people die from air pollution a year, so the relief from air pollution will impact many individuals.”
According to NASA, nitrogen dioxide levels have dropped 30% since the outbreak of the coronavirus. The reduction in nitrogen dioxide pollution was first apparent near Wuhan, China, but eventually spread across the country. Europe has seen a similar drop in air pollution levels, according to the European Space Agency.
“My hope is that we see this change and can adapt to living in a way that keeps this change in place in the future,” Snow said.
Though the environment has been positively impacted short-term by the coronavirus, Snow said climate change may cause an increase in the spread of infectious diseases in the future.
“We’ve seen an increase in the poleward movement of many tropical diseases,” she said. “That means diseases like Zika, Malaria and Dengue Fever are moving toward the United States from Central America as they follow the increases in temperatures.”
Snow said she believes the biggest public health crisis facing the world today is climate change. She added that the world’s lack of preparedness regarding COVID-19 is concerning because the number of public health issues due to climate change is high and continues to increase yearly with rising temperatures.
“If you begin to make a list of public health issues related to climate change — heat, disease, air pollution, water scarcity, food scarcity, extreme weather and mental health — you quickly realize that the list continues on and on,” she said. “We need to address the climate change public health crisis today.”