The environmental impact of lockdowns in Europe
According to a report by the European Environment Agency this week, lockdowns in Europe have meant some environmental improvements, including better air quality, lower carbon emissions, and less noise pollution.
As the pandemic continues to sweep across Europe, new restrictions, including further lockdowns, are being put in place, with France, Italy, and the UK among those taking measures.
In the statement, the EEA said that this “may have some direct, short-term, positive impacts on our environment, especially in terms of emissions and air quality, although these are likely to be temporary.”
Improvements in air pollution levels
In 2019, the EU Court of Auditors described air pollution as the “biggest environmental risk” to health for Europeans, causing approximately 400,000 premature deaths each year.
Some of the biggest risks include high levels of nitrogen dioxide and particles, especially in big cities, where citizens are at a greater risk of some types of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and respiratory problems.
The reports from lockdown periods show that the concentration of nitrogen dioxide gases, which are emitted mainly from vehicles and can be harmful, fell sharply in Spring of 2020.
Countries that saw the most significant differences were Spain, which had NO2 levels fall by 61%, France, which saw a reduction of 52%, and Italy, with a 61% decrease.
The environmental downsides of lockdowns
Despite these improvements, there were environmental downsides to the lockdown – the biggest being an increase in the use of plastics.
Plastic use is another key environmental concern. The WWF recently provided evidence that 150,000 tonnes of plastic is disposed of in European seas and waters each year, mostly in the Mediterranean, which contains 7% of the world’s microplastics.
During the pandemic, there has been a spike in plastic production and consumption, as the demand for masks, gloves, hand sanitiser, and other protective gear has soared.
In addition to this, many restaurants have been forced to switch to takeaway meals and supermarkets to home delivery. This also means more plastic containers and carrier bags.
The statement added, “The upsurge in demand for these items may challenge EU efforts to curb plastic pollution and move towards a more sustainable and circular plastics system.”