Environmental Impact of COVID-19 Lockdown, A Spotlight in The Darkness

Environmental Impact of COVID-19 Lockdown, A Spotlight in The Darkness


2020 has been a very dynamic year with a lot of events that has been interesting, appealing and sometimes straight up horrifying. Right at the start of the year, we had shadows of a world war looming over our heads with of US military intervention in Iran, we lost millions of living creatures to the forest fires in Australia devastating their habitats. And since then we have hardly had a normal month during this year.

But there is not a shred of doubt that COVID-19 has been the top highlight of the year. Spreading out from Wuhan, China, COVID-19 has so far infected 62,686,380 persons worldwide claiming the lives of 1,460,388 of them (up to November 29th, 2020) [1]. In addition to the sad losses of life, the pandemic has had a huge effect on world economies at all scales with one of the largest economic recessions in history. Millions have lost their jobs and whole sectors of economy like tourism, airlines and entertainment had been brought down to their knees due to the lockdown and imposing of the social distancing rules.

However, there was some light within the darkness. Amazingly, multiple reports have shown improvement in air quality and natural habitats during the lockdown.  Due to COVID-19, actions taken by governments across the world have led to significant reductions in environmental pollution and improvements in environmental quality, particularly, in countries with severe COVID-19 transmission such as China, USA, Italy and Spain. These countries experienced sharp reductions in carbon emissions, air pollution, sound pollution and pollution in beaches. However, these reductions were due to lockdown and were persistent within the lockdown period [2].

As a result, many countries around the world has taken the initiative to kick off what has come to be known as “green recovery plans” aiming at rebuilding the economy whilst keeping the emissions level at their low level, or at least preventing them from going back to pre COVID-19 levels.

What happened in major cities during COVID-19 wave peak:

The sweeping speed of COVID-19 transmission from person to person and from country to country has led many governments to take very drastic measures in order to slow down the infection rates. The term “flattening the curve” emerged and became a very popular during the first half of 2020 was. It meant trying to keep the number of new cases as low as possible in order to keep them within the capabilities of the healthcare systems. Many strict procedures were imposed to stop the spread of the virus such as:

  • Partial and total curfews
  • Social distancing
  • Closing of theatres, restaurants and cafes and banning all sorts of social gatherings
  • Encouraging working from home as applicable

Almost all major events were cancelled this year. Olympics, Hajj, football championships and EXPO 2020 in Dubai were among the most notable events to be cancelled or postponed this year.

As a result, transportation and vehicles were reduced to bare minimum up till June 2020 and almost all airlines were grounded. Due to low activity in industries, industrial waste emission has decreased to a large extent. Due to lesser demand of power in industries, use of fossil fuels or conventional energy sources have been lowered considerably. Ecosystems have greatly recovered. In many big cities the inhabitants have experienced a clear sky for the first time in their lives [3].

Global Effects of COVID-19 Containment Measures on Air Quality:

A study was carried out based on ground-level measurements from >10,000 air quality stations in 34 countries that had been in lockdown for an average of 62 days, with China (113 days) and Italy (84 days) undergoing the longest lockdowns and Mexico undergoing the shortest (50 days).

As of 15 May 2020, it was found that, during lockdown dates, ground-level NO2 concentrations were, on average, 60% lower than those we would have expected given the prevailing weather and time of year. Similarly, PM2.5 declined by 31% (17 to 45%), whereas O3 increased by 4%. It is worth noting that these percentages were calculated after accounting for meteorological variations [4].

A Wake-Up Call: Green Recovery Plans

The surprising positive impact of the COVID-19 lockdown around the world has served as a wake-up call to many countries. Multiple governments began studying how to return to the pervious economic activity levels without losing the significant gains in air quality that was achieved during the lockdown.

Cleaner air quality, healthier water, effective waste management, and enhanced biodiversity protection not only reduce the vulnerability of communities to pandemics and improve resilience, but have the potential to boost economic activity, generate income, create jobs, and reduce inequalities.

Opportunities and Controversies Facing Green Recovery

It is very tempting to see these green recovery plans as a magic bullet hitting two birds at the same time. No sane man would reject a plan that would restore global economies and reduce world pollution all in one shot.

And indeed we have some very positive indicators that such plans might work; for example, in the field of renewable energy, costs of its technologies are free falling. The experience curve of building renewable energy stations has increased due to the increase of the installed capacity of renewable technologies, their capital costs are reduced dramatically.

However, the grass is not that greener on the other side as we might imagine. Rising public debt, combined with significant capital outflows and reduced exports, will make financing green investments a challenge for many emerging markets as their governments seek viable strategies for kick-starting their economies once the disruption from the pandemic subsides.

With the storm of lost jobs and economic losses, a quick recovery to the economy will not favor radical changes to the pre-COVID-19 era but rather stimulation to the already existing plans in order to restore as much jobs as possible as soon as possible.


COVID-19 has had very negative effects on the world economy and general morale. However, the environmental effect of COVID-19 has been astonishingly positive. The worldwide lockdown has significantly improved the quality of air in multiple countries as was shown in multiple studies that were carried out either regionally or on a global scale.

This sparked some governments to explore the possibility of trying to restore the economy while retaining the pre-COVID-19 air quality. As tempting as it sounded with the dropping costs of many environmental friendly technologies, it is a little tricky to go through with these plans with the current economic situation. With the high unemployment rate and financial crisis in many countries that accompanied the lockdowns, shifting to a “greener” economy might not be as easy as we would like it to be.




"Worldometers - COVID-19 CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC," 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/. [Accessed 29 November 2020].


M. H. Shakil, Z. H. Munim, M. Tasnia and S. Sarowar, "COVID-19 and the environment: A critical review and research agenda," Science of the Total Environment, 2020.


I. Chakraborty and P. Maity, "COVID-19 outbreak: Migration, effects on society, global environment," Science of the Total Environment, no. 728, 2020.


Z. S. Venter, K. Aunan, S. Chowdhury and J. Lelieveld, "COVID-19 lockdowns cause global air pollution declines," PNAS, vol. 117, 2020.




Comments (2)


Yasmeen Alkandari Leader At 06:2 AM On December 3, 2020

Great read Amr! COVID-19 truly did spark an opportunity in restoring Air Quality and GHG emissions. I am curious to know what kind of plans are governments trying to implement in efforts of maintaining high air quality levels. Do you have additional references that tell more about this?


Amr Rashidy Leader At 04:46 PM On December 4, 2020

Sure Yasmeen, I would be happy to share it... There are some available resources on the internet as well for Green Recovery plans. Most notably, UK and Nairobi in Kenya.

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