Earth day: why COVID may have made environmental awareness easier

Iliana Woloch ‘24, News Editor and Kyra Abbott ‘24, Student Life Editor

Earth Day is a nationally celebrated awareness day, drawing attention to the pollution humans have caused over the past decades and what people can do to improve the dire situation. The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, though the mistreatment of the planet and its wildlife stretches well before that by a few thousand years. However, as if this threat to the ecosystem and the health of all Earth’s inhabitants was not already bad enough, the past few years have brought about another obstacle for environmentalists to overcome: the pandemic. Disposable masks, COVID tests, and disinfectant wipes have flooded landfills around the world. But for all the negative effects COVID has had on the environment, there are also many positive outcomes that have come from the worldwide lockdown. 

The pandemic has made pre-existing environmental issues more apparent and has highlighted the underlying problems that must be fixed. Over the past couple of years, “public health restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in a sharp dip in air pollution across China, Europe, and the US,” Oliver Milman, an environmental reporter for The Guardian, said. This outcome occurred because people were forced to quarantine, which meant more time at home and less time in a car. In turn, carbon emissions are starting to trend in a five percent annual decrease due to less fossil fuel consumption. Additionally, with less pollution in the air, there has also been less pollution in our waters, which leads to healthier drinking water, a safer environment for organisms, and a more promising future for the world we live in. 

Although these positive changes are allowing for progress to be made, environmental issues have not suddenly disappeared—they still exist. For instance, although pollution has decreased, climate change has not been positively altered enough to have any dramatic effect on the environment. Likewise, the waters in the Arctic region are “very likely to be free of sea ice in summers before 2050,” according to Milman. Climate change is still a prominent issue, and since the world is getting back to its ‘new normal,’ conservationists are concerned that any environmental benefits of the shutdown will be obliterated in the transition to pre-pandemic settings. 

Michael Gerrard, an environmental law expert at Columbia University, said a pandemic is “the worst possible way to experience environmental improvement, [but] it has also shown us the size of the task.” Although COVID has had disastrous effects on other factors, such as health, families, and the economy, it has shown us what environmental factors we need to focus on so that the environment does not regress into its prior state or even worse. A lost message has finally surfaced: environmental issues are human-created problems, not planetary issues.  

While the world works to return to a state of normalcy, we must not forget all that we have learned and gained from this experience in our haste to put everything back to the way it was. Simple tasks like carpooling, recycling or reusing old materials, and planting gardens to provide a more healthy alternative to store bought food all goes a long way towards saving the planet. 

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