7 expert perspectives on what COVID-19 means for the planet

At the height of the first wave, many people took heart from the drop in air pollution resulting from global lockdowns.

Greenpeace activists carry on a stretcher a giant balloon representing planet Earth.
DENIS LOVROVIC/AFP via Getty Images

Experts agree that the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic will be with us for years, even after the immediate threat has passed.


The way we live may have changed, perhaps for ever, but what about the impact on our planet? Here are 7 perspectives on what's happening – and what we can do about it.

1. COVID-19 may have cut air pollution but we haven't beaten climate change

At the height of the pandemic, many people took heart from the drop in air pollution resulting from global lockdowns. The reduction in economic activity took us back to daily levels last seen in 2006. But concentrations of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere are still rising.

Larissa Basso, a postdoctoral fellow at Stockholm University, says that's because CO2 molecules can persist in the atmosphere for up to 200 years. And, regardless, she says the drop in emissions will only be temporary unless we address the root causes by changing the way we live.

The International Energy Agency has called for a global investment of $1 trillion to accelerate the move to zero-carbon energy. Its plan would create 9 million jobs a year, reduce emissions by 4.5 billion tonnes globally and deliver a sustainable recovery.

2. The food waste problem has been made worse

Mountains of food have been thrown away because the pandemic has closed restaurants, shops and takeaway food outlets. And, with much of the waste dumped in landfills, methane levels could rise as a result.

Methane is 20 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas and is thought to have been responsible for approaching a fifth of historic global warming. It makes up at least half of all emissions from landfills.

The World Economic Forum initiative 'The Great Reset' calls for urgent action to manage the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, including food waste at a time of rising global poverty. "We must invest in the future and transform our food systems to build a more inclusive and sustainable world," the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said recently.

3. Single-use plastics are on the rise too

Plastic has played a vital role in keeping us safe and treating people suffering from COVID-19 – think masks and plastic cups. But some experts say it's being used so much that we are storing up a plastics crisis for the future.

The pandemic threatens to stall or even reverse progress to reduce global plastic waste, says Jacob Duer, President and CEO, Alliance to End Plastic Waste. In the UK, illegal dumping of trash has risen 300% during the crisis.

In Thailand, the Environment Institute blames soaring home food deliveries for increasing levels of plastic waste from about 1,500 tonnes a day to about 6,000 tonnes. Duer urges companies and governments to work together to reduce plastic use and improve waste management.

4. Millions more people will be driven into poverty

The World Bank says as many as 100 million extra people could be pushed into extreme poverty by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the global economy. That's 100 million people forced to live on less than $1.90 a day.

Shrinking global GDP risks reversing recent progress in reducing the numbers of the world's poorest people. A total of half a billion people could be pushed into poverty by COVID-19, according to Oxfam.

Of the 176 million people the World Bank expects to be pushed into poverty with an income below $3.20 a day, two-thirds are in South Asia. Only a robust global recovery will reverse this trend, it says.

Coronavirus pushes half a billion people into poverty

Source: Oxfam

5. Immunization has been set back by the pandemic

While the world has been focused on fighting coronavirus, deadly diseases have not gone away. But efforts to combat them by immunization have taken a back seat to combatting COVID-19, and the results could be serious unless inoculations pick up the pace.

UNICEF estimates that 80 million children under the age of one could go unvaccinated due to the disruption of immunization programmes. "Immunization is one of the most powerful and fundamental disease prevention tools in the history of public health," says Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization Director-General.

"Disruption to immunization programmes from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to unwind decades of progress against vaccine-preventable diseases like measles," he adds. UNICEF agrees: "As we recover from COVID-19, our aim should not be to just make up lost ground, but to break through the long stagnation that has held us back for the last decade."

6. 'Building back better' must put the environment and fairness first

IKEA may be best known around the word for its flat-pack furniture. But Per Heggenes, CEO of the IKEA Foundation, wants us all to collectively work to build something bigger – a better world for future generations.

Writing for the World Economic Forum, Heggenes set out a five-point programme for a fairer and more sustainable post-COVID world: protect the planet; renewable energy for all; a changed relationship to food; dignified work and entrepreneurship; and leave no one behind.

"Challenging situations can bring out the best in people. Solidarity, unprecedented collaboration and new ways of thinking can help us emerge stronger and smarter from this pandemic," Heggenes says.

7. Looking after the environment could help prevent future pandemics

Protecting nature is the key to avoiding future pandemics, scientists believe. Writing in a guest article for the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, four leading biodiversity experts lay the blame for the current crisis at the door of humanity.

Warning that 1.7 million viruses, known to infect humans, exist in mammals and water birds, they say deforestation, intensive farming, mining and development, coupled with the exploitation of wild species have created a "perfect storm" for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people.

But if we are the problem we can also be the solution. "We can build back better and emerge from the current crisis stronger and more resilient than ever – but to do so means choosing policies and actions that protect nature – so that nature can help to protect us," they say.

Reprinted with permission of the World Economic Forum. Read the original article.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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