Covid-19 & The Environment

The ups and downs of the lockdown on wildlife and pollution

There is a high chance that whoever is reading this right now has spent a good part of the first half of 2020 at home. Earlier this year, the majority of countries around the world reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic by imposing restrictions, either nationwide or locally, limiting the freedom of movement and allowing only essential businesses to remain open. By April 2020, half of the world population was forced to stay indoors, and while humans were confined within four walls, pictures of animals wandering freely in cities centres around the world started to spread. Around the same time, videos showing the reduction of air traffic around the globe or pollution in urban areas gained popularity across social media. As a result of the lockdown, the environment seemed to heal. However, as the old saying goes, not all that glitters is gold. The pandemic has also posed important threats to the environment. Let us dig a bit deeper.

Covid-19 & Wildlife

First things first, consider where it all started.

The virus is believed to have originated in Chinese wet markets but there is some disagreement as to whether we should blame bats or pangolins for the spreading of the virus. Regardless, it is precisely thanks to this discussion that more people than ever became aware of wet markets (and pangolins) in the first place: markets where animals, especially wild species, are sold alive. The name itself comes from the ice that melts as it keeps the animals fresh or from the water used to clean their blood. When the media indicated wildlife trade as the probable origin of the virus, people all over the world demanded that they be shut down. In response, China temporarily banned the sale of wild species for eating purposes in addition to updating the list of animals that can be eaten (now excluding dogs). Even though it is not at all clear for how long this ban will last, turning the spotlight on wet markets helped people become more aware of wildlife trade, and improvements were made.

However, while the world was turned to China, hunters took advantage of the lockdown to go after unguarded endangered species in other regions of the world. Indeed, wildlife hunting, or poaching to be more precise, has been reported to have increased in Africa and Latin America. In March, at least six black rhinos were murdered in Botswana, forcing the government to evacuate the few left away from rural areas. The same concerns were afflicting conservation groups more than 11,000 kilometres away, in Colombia, where poaching of jaguars, tigers, and pumas had surged during the lockdown. A representative of Panthera, a non-profit organisation that aims at safeguarding wild cats in South America, told Newsweek that they were registering a significant increase in cat killings as poachers took advantage of the restriction to hunt in unprotected areas.

It would be impossible to conclude this first part on the impact of the COVID lockdown without referring to the pictures of animals going for a stroll around big cities: deers in India, boars in downtown Barcelona, mountain goats on the streets of Wales. As an Italian, I was particularly pleased to hear that dolphins had been spotted in Venice. Alas, it was fake news. Nevertheless, the water of the canals had not looked so clean in a long time. Yet, this was not true for the Venetian lagoon only. The halt to human mobility had a huge impact not only in terms of wildlife but also in terms of pollution. In fact, the halt was so significant that a group of researchers even coined a new name for that: the anthropause.

Covid-19 & Pollution

Cars, busses, subways, trains, planes: most routes were suspended during the first half of 2020 as people were forced to work and study from home, and all nonessential travels were banned. A paper by Le Quéré et al. (2020) estimates that the lockdowns around the world resulted, by April, in a reduction of daily CO2 emission of 17% relative to 2019, with peaks of 26% decreases in some countries. Interestingly, the interruption of surface transportations is at the source of roughly half of this change. The same paper predicts that the overall level of emission might be from 4% to 7% lower this year compared to last year, depending on how long the ongoing lockdowns will last and if some countries will put more in place: this is the greatest drop since World War II.

While this is certainly good news, the use of plastic has skyrocketed given the need for personal protective equipment, such as disposable masks, gloves, and other single-use devices, notwithstanding the packaging of all these items. This created a huge disposal problem, with reckless people dumping their masks on the streets, on the beach, or in the woods. Littering has only become much of a larger problem during the pandemic, with high volumes of new waste adding to the pre-existing burden. However, because of their particular shape, masks and gloves represent an additional threat to wildlife. Through rains, plastic equipment ends up in the sewage or directly in rivers, seas, or oceans, polluting and endangering animals. “Gloves, like plastic bags, can appear to be jellyfish or other types of foods to sea turtles, for example,” warns John Hocevar, the ocean campaign director at Greenpeace USA, adding that “the straps on masks can present entangling hazards”.

The net effect is still uncertain…

If you have come this far, you might be wondering what the bottom line is. Has the environment benefited from this anthropause? Has it made things worse? There is no easy answer. In fact, it might be best to say that there is no definitive answer at all. The pandemic has forced us to stay inside for months: we stopped using our cars, we started having school and work meetings online, and we got used to social distancing. The restrictions reduced the level of emissions, wildlife reclaimed urban areas and Chinese wet markets were banned, but poachers kept poaching and countless disposable masks were wrongly discarded. Most importantly, there are many, many other ways in which the environment has been impacted, both positively and negatively, that cannot be summarised in one article. If you want to know more about this topic, you can find the references below, and do not forget to follow oikos Lisbon for more related content. In particular, a future release will uncover more of what has been going on during this pandemic, and specifically how some countries reacted to the crisis by envisioning an economic recovery that goes hand in hand with sustainable development.

Stay tuned!


Briggs, H. (2020, April 5). Coronavirus: Putting the spotlight on the global wildlife trade. BBC News. Retrieved from

Georgiou, A. (2020, April 23). Spike in Big Cat Poaching During Coronavirus Lockdown in Colombia, Conservation Group Says. Newsweek. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from

‌Le Quéré, C., Jackson, R. B., Jones, M. W., Smith, A. J., Abernethy, S., Andrew, R. M., … & Friedlingstein, P. (2020). Temporary reduction in daily global CO 2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nature Climate Change, 1-7.

Maron, D. (2020, May 1). Botswana is evacuating black rhinos amid poaching threat. National Geographic Retrieved October 12, 2020, from

Picheta, R. (2020, May 4). Discarded masks and gloves have become a common sight in cities around the world. CNN. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from

Reuters. (2020, March 12). Discarded coronavirus masks clutter Hong Kong’s beaches, trails. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from

Samuel, S. (2020, April 15). What is a wet market? Here’s why China is reopening them despite coronavirus. Vox. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from

Sandford, A. (2020, April 2). Coronavirus: Half of humanity on lockdown in 90 countries. Euronews.Retrieved October 12, 2020, from

Wildlife markets in the spotlight – (LINK)

China ban on wet markets and sale of wildlife – (LINK)

Plastic littering (LINK)

Le Quéré, C., Jackson, R. B., Jones, M. W., Smith, A. J., Abernethy, S., Andrew, R. M., … & Friedlingstein, P. (2020). Temporary reduction in daily global CO 2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nature Climate Change, 1-7.