The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions in Europe have led to some environmental benefits such as lower emissions and better air quality. But they were temporary and concurrent with an increase in single-use plastic, according to a report by the European Environment Agency (EEA).
The EU agency published the report “COVID-19 and Europe’s environment,” which offers a preliminary view of what the pandemic, and resulting government measures to fight it, have meant for the environment. It highlighted the urgent need to address the environmental challenges Europe faces, its authors said.
One of the most evident short-term effects of COVID-19 lockdowns has been a dramatic improvement in air quality. Although air quality now appears to be returning to near-pre-lockdown levels, this period has revealed some of the benefits that could be achieved from a lasting and sustainable reduction in air pollution.
The EEA’s Air quality and COVID-19 viewer tracks average weekly and monthly concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM 10 and PM 2.5). Data show how concentrations of NO2 — a pollutant mainly emitted by road transport — fell sharply in many European countries.
Concentrations of PM 10 also fell across Europe in this period, but the decrease was less pronounced. Whereas NO2 emissions are largely attributable to road transport, PM concentrations are influenced by emissions from natural sources as well as man-made sources such as residential heating, agriculture, and industry. The extent of reductions varied considerably, with the largest of up to 70% seen in urban centers in those countries most affected by COVID-19 at that time. Other cities which were less affected by the COVID first wave and saw activity returning sooner, experienced sharp initial declines in NO2, followed by a return to pre-lockdown levels.
“While we have grown accustomed to unhealthy noise levels in cities, the short-term reduction during lockdown allowed people to experience the immediate benefits of quieter cities. Several sources have also documented a dramatic fall in ground vibrations generated by human activity, such as road traffic,” the authors wrote.
According to initial evaluations from the International Energy Agency (IEA), global energy demand in 2020 could fall by around 6%. Therefore, the strong contraction in GDP and energy use might help the EU achieve its 20% renewable energy target and its objective to improve energy efficiency by 20% in 2020.
The role of plastics
The pandemic has caused significant changes in the production and consumption of plastics and plastic waste. There was a sudden surge in global demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves. During the start of the pandemic, 89 million medical masks were requested globally.
Since most restaurants in Europe were closed for on-site dining, many moved to offering take away and delivery services using single-use plastic containers. Several coffee retailers stopped allowing customers to bring refillable containers, using disposable cups in their place. Meanwhile, online shopping outlets have seen a surge in demand, with many products packed in single-use plastic.
“While disposable plastic products have played an important role in preventing the spread of COVID-19, the upsurge in demand for these items could challenge EU efforts to curb plastic pollution and move towards a more sustainable and circular plastics system,” the authors of the report argued.