Written by Jia Choudhary and Bhavika Agrawal
Reference: Deutsche Bank, Covid-19: a threat to sustainable development or an opportunity?
Although the COVID-19 induced effect on our lives has been titled “unprecedented” by multiple accredited sources, it has taught us to be astute and strategically plan. It has presented us with various challenges and thought-provoking situations which can dictate our actions in the future. Whether we take up the challenge and change for the better or ignore it, bringing us back to our original circumstances, is upon us.
Despite efforts made by governments worldwide, COVID-19 continues to victimise people, and this has led to severe socio-economic disruptions in almost all aspects of individual and societal life. According to the McKinsey Global Survey (2021) which conducted an overview on the economy, pandemics and inflation are the top risks to domestic growth in every region. Alternatively, the results of the survey suggest that supply chain disruptions have tanked the uncertainty over COVID-19 as a foremost economic concern in many regions (McKinsey, 2021). Moreover, economic activity in the transportation industry nearly came to a standstill in the initial stages of the pandemic. Due to such drastic upturns and downturns in the business cycle, governments around the world have been deviating their attention from sustainability initiatives.
The health crisis has resulted in several precautionary measures such as lockdowns, safe distancing, and travel restrictions. In many instances, this has also led to behavioural changes amongst people which have had a positive impact on the environment. Some behavioural changes in day-to-day activities include a reduction in the demand for physical newspaper copies, reduced transportation, and electricity consumption. This has cumulatively resulted in temporarily reduced emissions, improved Air Quality Index (AQI), and reduced carbon footprints (Lehmann et al., 2021).
As governments loosen safety regulations, this paper focuses on the nexus between the pandemic and the societal transitions towards environmental sustainability. Following this, we aim to identify the opportunities that have been presented to us and threats that stand in the way of post-pandemic recovery.
Plastic Builds a Barrier
At the beginning of 2020, the UK announced that it was going to place a ban on a range of single-use plastic products. These included plastic grocery bags, straws, and cutlery. This is because they are arduous, and often impossible, to recycle (Parashar, 2021). The detrimental impacts of plastic on the environment are known to all which have deterred individuals away from single-use plastics while governments have been making conscious efforts towards phasing it out for years. However, when COVID-19 struck, our use of single-use plastic shot up again.
More than eight million tons of plastic waste has been generated by pandemic-associated activities and more than 25,000 tons have entered the ocean in a year (Peng, 2021). This increase in demand for plastic has resulted from the unique amalgamation of its strength, thinness, and cost-effectiveness. Many single-use plastic (SUP) legislations were withdrawn or postponed meeting the high demand for personal protection equipment (PPE), such as face masks, gloves, and face shields. However, as the world continues to be grappled by the pandemic even after two years, it seems that this spike in demand for such equipment is here to stay.
Alternatively, even if the demand for such products were to shrink in the years to come, the reversal of government bans on SUP which occurred due to the fear of the virus clinging to reusable products seems to have deferred such plans for an indefinite period. The UK government’s ban on plastic bags, cutlery and straws were one of the first ones to have been revoked (Parashar, 2021). We believe such actions will adversely affect the behaviour of consumers in the future, even when COVID-19 phases out, deterring them from switching to sustainable options.
Apart from the high demand from PPEs and personal use products, the global lockdown has caused many people to heavily rely on online shopping and takeaways to procure daily necessities, causing the demand for plastic to increase further. As shown in the figure below, countries witnessed a surge in the numbers, with some experiencing a jump as high as 78% as compared to pre-covid levels. The pandemic has also inspired a distinct type of consumer demand and behavioural shifts among the public, such as panic buying and stockpiling of food and goods, resulting in an increase in plastic-based packaging items in many nations (Grashuis, 2020).
Figure 1: Percentage Increase in Online Shopping and Takeaway Service During Pandemic ( Parashar, 2021)
Now you may be wondering, why didn’t governments and institutions utilise their recycling ecosystem efficiently to repurpose the excess plastic being produced? There are two major roadblocks in the path of doing so. Firstly, with the global supply chain disruption and worldwide lockdowns, normal operations of all kinds of factories came to an abrupt halt. These included recycling firms, making it impossible for them to function at even pre-covid levels. Secondly, there are multiple types of plastic that are produced, and not all of it can be recycled. According to a report by Greenpeace (2020), only 14 percent of global plastic production can be recycled. This is because technology has not yet evolved enough to recycle the diverse range of plastic humanity produces.
Overall, while the global demand for plastic has drastically increased due to behavioural changes during the pandemic, the recycling infrastructure is not yet efficient or developed enough to handle the surge. This poses a challenge to the government to undertake investments in this industry to ensure that our oceans remain safe and our ecosystem, unharmed.
Covid Helps Clear Up Air
From March to May 2020, nationwide lockdown led to environmental relief. The highlights of a research study published by Global Transitions suggest that lockdowns on economic activities revealed the benefits of reducing air pollution dramatically in India (Dasgupta, 2020). Another study observes that air pollution in Singapore significantly reduced during the lockdown as compared to the previous four years. There is a manifold of sources that state and test similar hypotheses that lockdowns have led to lower levels of air pollution and decreased carbon emissions. Reasons for these reductions include, but are not limited to, transit restrictions, supply chain disruptions, and reduced demand for electricity consumption (Dasgupta, 2020).
In the analysis conducted by Global Transitions, it is found that lockdowns in multiple Indian cities are correlated with lower levels of air pollution. This is seen in figure 2 which showcases the pollutant concentrations in Mumbai, during the lockdown, before the lockdown and national standards of pollution set for Indian cities (Dasgupta, 2020).
Figure 2: Daily Pollutant Concentration Levels and Standards for Indian Cities (Dasgupta, 2020)
Mumbai is a high-income state, and most of its power requirements are met using renewable energy sources. As noted in figure 2, CO (Carbon Monoxide) is significantly lower in 2020 than in 2019. Moreover, NO2 (Nitrogen Dioxide) presence in 2020 also deviated from its observed presence in 2019. Alternatively, PM10 and PM2.5 are approximately the same levels in both years. All in all, this shows the positive impact a reduction in transportation has on the environment. Especially in cities like Mumbai, where the local commute is used by millions every day (Dasgupta, 2020).
The silver lining or irony in this scenario is that COVID-19 which causes a lot of respiratory issues has, in turn, led to a reduction in pollution levels leading to health benefits. However, these effects on the environment are referred to as “short term”. “Global warming 2020 emissions were already 2% higher than they had been in the same month in 2019” (Lehmann et al., 2021). The air quality index (AQI) has slowly been returning to its “pre pandemic” levels. This is quite understandable because transportation has a major impact on air quality and as countries around the world ease precautionary measures, people are going outdoors more often be it for leisure or work.
There has been a lot of noise around whether the environmental sustainability induced by the global covid-19 pandemic will have any long-term impacts or not. A study by MDPI also aims to find an answer to the question in the discussion by testing a few hypotheses as seen in figure 3 (Lehmann et al., 2021).
Figure 3: MDPI Study Hypothesis Testing (Lehmann et al,, 2021)
Results point out the “social science indication” which suggests that crises are generally “beneficial” for initiating change processes. However, it states that the quantity and quality of change depend on qualitative aspects like leadership, politics, and resources within an economy. So far, we have taken stock of the fact that measures undertaken to weaken the spread of the virus have acted as catalysts in reducing environmental and health threats like air pollution (Lehmann et al., 2021).
Based on the data presented above, it is undeniable that COVID-19 has opened windows of opportunity to build a more sustainable environment. It has helped us understand that if we consciously try to avoid certain acts in our daily lives – like excessive use of transportation – there can be a significant effect on our surroundings. For example, pre covid, governments and other organisations had been working towards sustainability initiatives for years and yet were unable to yield similar impacts as COVID-19 on factors of sustainability like AQI. The point is that we cannot solely be dependent on such crises to occur and make a difference. The conservation of such changes depends on a culmination of various factors including political will, leadership, resource availability and citizens' mindsets (Lehmann et al., 2021). Therefore, encapsulating these factors will support the transition towards environmental sustainability even post-pandemic.
A smooth transition to a sustainable future
We believe that this change can be sustained if the governments around the world ensure that a clear and well-targeted political framework is set up to nudge their businesses and citizens towards a sustainable lifestyle. It is only if we all come together to fight the urge to be selfish in our resource use, will we create a socio-ecological resilience that helps us to prevent and cope with future pandemics and crises. The global financial crisis of 2008/09 forms an excellent illustration in which regulatory, technological, and cultural improvements were promoted to overcome the flaws shown by the economic catastrophe. For example, China and many European states poured money into stimulus packages that aimed at least in part at green technologies. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has also been documented. Indeed, 30% of the EU budget will be spent on addressing climate change in Europe as part of the COVID-19 recovery program (Lehmann et al., 2021).
Now, the question is how will the pandemic affect efforts taken towards environmental sustainability? Moreover, does it create an opportunity for growth or pose challenges as people return to their pre-pandemic lives? We believe that COVID-19 can indeed be used as a transition towards a more sustainable future. This is because people have already tried
within the previous year to avoid using transportation, cut back on plastic use, reduced electricity consumption and are increasingly becoming more environmentally friendly. “Aspects here range from the change of individual behaviour up to massive public investment to overcome the COVID-19-induced recession, which can and should be channeled towards sustainability targets (Lehmann et al., 2021).” Governments should use this situation to their advantage and keep sustainability initiatives at the forefront of all economic recovery packages.
Circular Claims Fall Flat: Comprehensive US Survey of Plastics Recyclability. (2020, February 18). Greenpeace. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from
Dasgupta, P. (2020). Reduced air pollution during COVID-19: Learnings for sustainability from Indian Cities. ScienceDirect. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.glt.2020.10.002
Grashuis, J., Skevas, T., & Segovia, M. S. (2020, July 2). Sustainability | Free Full-Text | Grocery Shopping Preferences during the COVID-19 Pandemic. MDPI. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/12/13/5369
Hadley, S. (2021, January 13). Ocean Acidification Linked to Plastic Pollution- Study. Earth.Org. https://earth.org/ocean-acidification-linked-to-plastic-pollution/
Lehmann, P. (2021, August 4). Environmental Sustainability Post-COVID-19: Scrutinizing Popular Hypotheses from a Social Science Perspective. MDPI. https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2a hUKEwiXuqKdjdn2AhWcTmwGHVMsA5IQFnoECAYQAQ&url=https%3A%2 F%2Fwww.mdpi.com%2F2071-
Li, J. (2020, July 22). Changes in Air Quality during the COVID-19 Lockdown in Singapore and Associations with Human Mobility Trends. Aerosol and Air Quality Research. Retrieved March 26, 2022, from https://aaqr.org/articles/aaqr 20-06-covid-0303
Parashar, N. (2021, March 10). Plastics in the time of COVID-19 pandemic: Protector or polluter? ScienceDirect.
Peng, Y. (2021, November 8). Plastic waste release caused by COVID-19 and its fate in the global ocean. PNAS. https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2111530118
The COVID-19 effect on economic conditions. (2021, December 21). McKinsey. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate finance/our-insights/the-coronavirus-effect-on-global-economic-sentiment