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COVID-19 Pandemic - Challenges and Opportunities for the Environmental Sector

By Gretchen Greene, Rabia Ahmed, and Jeri Sawyer from Greene Economics, with contributions from Deborah McGrath, Professor of Biology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.


The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed nearly every aspect of our lives. Our collective willingness to act to minimize the contagion is a stark reminder that we can and must work together to manage the natural environment. These actions and the resulting global economic shock offer unique opportunities to better understand how we impact the nature world and manage our environment. Emerging opportunities include a call for more research on human-wildlife interactions, and heightened awareness of the profound connection between environmental quality and economic activity. Challenges include innovative funding mechanisms for environmental management and preserving economic stability while maintaining environmental compliance and enforcement. Below, we outline key challenges and opportunities for the environmental sector.


Environmental Health Research Opportunities

1. There is a clear need for improved management of protected areas so that wild can stay wild.[1] SARS, MERS, and H1N1 are all zoonotic infections that emerge quickly, spread rapidly, have high fatality rates, and for which no vaccine can be quickly developed. These diseases originate from increasingly greater human interaction with wildlife populations that serve as reservoirs for novel pathogens. Human encroachment into wildlife habitat through forest clearing and land use change, illegal wildlife and bush meat trade, and wet markets (in which domestic and wild animals mingle before on site slaughter), all serve as potential points of zoonotic transfer.[2] Since nearly 75 percent of new infectious diseases are zoonotic global health experts now embrace the “One Health” model which is a collaborative, multisector and transdisciplinary approach that recognizes that the health of people is closely connected to the health of other animals, plants and our shared environment.

Environmental Research Opportunity: Collaborative research on zoonotic diseases and human/wildlife interface


Environmental Research Challenge: Translating results into coordinated detection, prevention, response, and control plan


Environmental Impact Awareness Opportunity

2. The abrupt decline in our normal economic production and sales is creating a host of impacts as people lose income and have fewer resources to feed and care for their families. Typically, poor and vulnerable populations suffer disproportionately. At the same time, the slowdown provides a window of opportunity as we recognize the direct relationship between our economy activity and its environmental impact. One striking example is the significant improvement in air quality around the globe, as portrayed in post-pandemic photographs from Wuhan China, London, and the U.S. Research shows that between 100,000 and 200,000 people in the U.S. die from poor air quality each year,[3] and approximately seven million people die globally.[4] We have to wonder, can we come together to improve air quality intentionally to save lives just as we have rallied to save lives from the pandemic? An interesting question to consider: How do lives saved from cleaner air compare to those lost by deaths from COVID-19?


3. An unexpected outcome has been a reduction in noise pollution, especially in urban areas. Seismologists who study the rumblings of citywide transit systems, traffic, construction and other sources have noticed less noise from Wuhan to Europe to New York and global noise reduction improves detection of earthquakes. The reduction in cruise ships and other maritime traffic has eased pressure on whales and other ocean species. Anecdotally, citizens are taking notice of bird calls and appreciating the natural world like never before.


4. Water quality may be affected by global slowing of production and attendant pollution, but reports of improved water quality (for example, online claims that water clarity in Venice, Italy had dramatically improved with reduced tourism), were not scientifically supported. Still, because water may appear to improve in quality, this can serve to raise awareness of the direct relationship between human activity and the environment. Meanwhile, researchers are as yet unclear about whether or not COVID-19 could be a viable threat to swimmers, as a result of raw or undertreated sewage being released to surface waters. The virus lives for several days in sewage, lending itself to transmission through fecal oral routes.


5. The economic slowdown also has caused a temporary reduction in energy demand, fossil fuel use, and associated emissions. Restricted travel has reduced fuels consumption for cars, ships, and airplanes. While this represents a temporary boon for air quality, the emissions reduction is unlikely to be sustained once economic activity picks up. With the normalization of virtual meetings and conferences, it is unclear whether global travel patterns will resume to pre-COVID-19 levels.


6. The temporary reduction in fuel demand has (in part) caused a steep reduction in oil prices. Typically, a lower price would encourage a rebound in fuel demand as individuals and businesses switch to less expensive fuel sources and/or consume more gas it because it is cheaper. Unfortunately, there may be a prolonged downward pressure on oil prices as a result of an ongoing price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia.


Environmental Impact Awareness Opportunity: It is hard to miss the cleaner air, and how life looks with less consumption and production.


Environmental Impact Awareness Challenge: Transforming awareness into action once we have returned to more normal lifestyles.


Public Policy Funding and Enforcement Challenge

7. Both public health and the natural environment are public goods, historically necessitating government funding for most of the care and management of the natural environment. With the current stress on fiscal budgets created by emergency health care and economic needs stemming from the pandemic, funding for environmental priorities will have lower priority. For example, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee was forced to cut $50 million in proposed new climate change funding due to the fiscal crisis created by COVID-19. Such cuts in government support for environmental protection are likely to persist over the long term because the economic slowdown will simultaneously decrease state and local government tax revenues.


8. Many companies are experiencing lost revenues and/or an inability to operate due to COVID-19 restrictions. In response, the EPA recognizes that such economic hardship may affect reporting obligations and milestones set forth in settlements and consent decrees and “the ability of an operation to meet enforceable limitations on air emissions and water discharges, requirements for the management of hazardous waste, or requirements to ensure and provide safe drinking water.”[5] This decision demonstrates that environmental priorities remain lower than necessity goods and services; that is, when incomes decline, demand for environmental services decline more than proportionally. From an economic perspective, this signals that environmental services are perceived as a “luxury item.”


Environmental Policy and Enforcement Challenge: During the pandemic, public funding for environmental policies may be reallocated for health and economic emergencies, while revenues decline.


Environmental Policy Funding and Enforcement Opportunity: Greater incentive to turn to environmental funding and policy solutions that use fewer public resources such as innovative private-public partnerships.

Agriculture and Food Security Challenge

9. Agricultural production is somewhat exempt from the economic hiatus given that it is generally considered part of our critical infrastructure. However agricultural labor is not immune from COVID-19. The recent shutdown of Smithfield pork production in South Dakota, which processes about five percent of the nation’s pork, demonstrates that the impacts of an outbreak inside the agricultural supply chain can be significant. Similarly, about 25 percent of hired farm labor in crops and crop support is conducted through the H-2A guest farmworkers program for foreign nationals, who come to the U.S. on temporary work visas. Although the U.S. Department of State is expanding the program in the face of the pandemic, it is not clear whether there will be an adequate supply of healthy farm workers – domestic or foreign – to meet the needs of normal production. Finally, the lost sales and interrupted supply channels related to food that normally goes to restaurants and educational institutions are causing additional snags in getting products to consumers. The resulting production decisions by farmers will have a widespread impact on environmental conditions, from produce that remains in the field, to reductions in water use, to changes in farming practices.


Agricultural and Food Security Challenge: As food supply and distribution channels fail with failing worker health, and supply-chain upheaval will low-income communities be able to feed their families?


Agricultural and Food Security Opportunity: Achieving food security through more localized farming systems gains importance as a result of the pandemic, with an increase in small and urban farms and greater reliance on more sustainable agroecological practices.


Environmental Risk Challenge

10. We can learn a lot from the idiom “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” because, as the pandemic crisis underscores, we often fail to invest in prevention and instead react to crisis. Risk awareness research shows that while preparedness for all manner of unexpected emergencies makes good sense in the long run, most people never think unpredictable and catastrophic events will happen to them. This lack of public understanding of risk translates into an unwillingness to accept the financial burden of preparation. We hope that a silver lining from this pandemic will be that this pandemic IS happening to everyone. Perhaps the experience will strengthen our collective willingness to invest in the needed collaborative preparation, detection, and response to the next zoonotic infection,[6] as well create more resilient health care systems that are available to all citizens.


11. There are numerous parallels between the COVID-19 and climate change crises. Changes in our lives as we know them may come more slowly with climate change than with the current urgent response to the pandemic. Like the pandemic response, climate change impacts will also be global, unpredictable, and costly. Climate change will also take a toll on public health and affect vulnerable populations the most, thereby heightening discussions of inequities across race, culture, and socioeconomic status. However, unlike a viral infection for which a vaccine will be developed, global climate change is likely irreversible.


Environmental Risk Challenge: Communicating risk and putting in place mitigation strategies to reduce long run community destruction at the hand of the environmental forces is a difficult decision to make – especially during a crisis.


Environmental Risk Opportunity: Once we recover from the pandemic, the lessons we learn can inspire a collaborative approach to preventing future damage associated with changing climate and the other pressures we place on the natural environment.

(This blog is also posted on the Northwest Environmental Business Council (NEBC) website: https://www.nebc.org/industry-news/)

[1] Anderson, Inger, 2020. COVID-19 is not a silver lining for the climate, says UN Environment chief, available at: https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1061082 [2] Belay ED, Kile JC, Hall AJ, Barton-Behravesh C, Parsons MB, Salyer S, et al. Zoonotic disease programs for enhancing global health security. Emerg Infect Dis. 2017 Suppl. https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2313.170544 [3] Christopher W. Tessum el al., "Inequity in consumption of goods and services adds to racial–ethnic disparities in air pollution exposure," PNAS (2019). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1818859116 [4] World Health Organization, Health Topics, Air Pollution, available at: https://www.who.int/health-topics/air-pollution#tab=tab_1 accessed on April 13, 2020. [5] COVID-19 Implications for EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Program, Susan Bodine, Agency Administrator, March 26, 2020. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2020-03/documents/oecamemooncovid19implications.pdf, accessed April 13, 2020. [6] Belay ED, Kile JC, Hall AJ, Barton-Behravesh C, Parsons MB, Salyer S, et al. Zoonotic disease programs for enhancing global health security. Emerg Infect Dis. 2017 Suppl. https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2313.170544


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