UC Berkeley professors discuss environmental impacts of COVID-19

Infographic depicting environmental effects of COVID-19
Amber Chia /Staff

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Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the environment has experienced both positive and negative impacts.

At the start of the pandemic, as cities implemented lockdowns, there were dramatic reductions in air pollution and carbon emissions due to the closing of transportation and manufacturing, according to Alastair Iles, campus associate professor of environmental policy and societal change.

At the peak of the pandemic last year, energy use and consequently greenhouse gas emissions decreased by nearly 30% around the world, according to Daniel Kammen, professor of energy and chair of UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group. However, these short-term reductions dissipated by the end of 2020 when fossil fuel use was close to its pre-pandemic level.

Despite the return to prior patterns, Kammen noted a shift in the structure of cities in response to the pandemic.

“We’ve seen restaurants reclaiming the streets from cars, and we’ve seen outdoor seating, reimagining cities based around people not around vehicles. That’s one of the good things that’s come out,” Kammen said.

Kammen suggested that the major shift toward telecommuting has had vast environmental benefits, reducing unnecessary trips to work. He expressed his hope that this change will remain long term.

He added that the most difficult challenge is to find ways to make the same opportunities available for lower-income Americans, who struggle with poor internet access and possess manual jobs.

Kammen also observed that the pandemic provides an opportunity to build renewable energy projects, which are now cheaper than those involving fossil fuel.

“If we can utilize the pandemic to dramatically accelerate the shift to clean energy, we will save money, create more jobs and set ourselves up for the sustainable future we need,” Kammen said.

At the same time that the pandemic resulted in decreased greenhouse gas emissions, it also produced a dramatic increase in waste.

Iles pointed out various new trends emerging during the pandemic, particularly in terms of consumption and the use of disposable plastics.

“These included growing consumption impacts from a spectacular rise in online purchases (eg. from Amazon), much more use of packaging and delivery services as a result, increases in waste from the biomedical equipment needed (like the billions of masks and, now, billions of vaccine bottles), and a switchback to disposable plastics in the food sector instead of reusables,” Iles said in an email.

Due to an increasing switch to online purchases and deliveries, particularly in industrial sectors, consumption impacts are much harder to control, Iles added.

Jessica Heiges, a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley in the department of environmental science, policy and management, noted an enormous influx of single-use disposable items.

“The desire to have single-use disposables during COVID because they create this perception of cleanliness has only exacerbated the strain that consumption of said products is putting on our environment,” Heiges said.

She explained that the strain occurs both upstream in the production and transportation of those items and downstream in their disposal, which may produce litter, landfill and leakage into soil, air and water.

Heiges added that the pandemic disrupted and delayed legislation against single-use disposable food containers, such as fees or bans on disposable bags and straws. However, such legislation is now being revived.

In early July, the city of Berkeley discussed the use of produce bags in grocery stores and promoted the use of reusable bags at a City Council Facilities, Infrastructure, Transportation, Environment and Sustainability Committee meeting.

Maine, for instance, recently implemented an extended producer responsibility policy against plastic, which shifts the responsibility of consumption and disposal from the consumer to the producer.

Heiges described the responsibility individuals have to be stewards of the environment and activists, ensuring the government is taking necessary steps to address consumption practices.

“Our economic systems need fundamental change — perhaps even degrowth in some areas — if we’re going to tackle climate change effectively,” Iles said in the email. “If we want to achieve real gains, we need to reduce our amount of travel, especially on airplanes. We need to reduce our online purchases and try to make the products we buy last longer, instead of just disposing of them after a short time.”

Contact Kira Rao-Poolla at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @kiraraopoolla.