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Post-Pandemic Pollution... How has the pandemic affected pollution?

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

[Photo credit: Shutter stock]

Before we dive in, has it ever occurred to you the extensive number of types of pollution? Ranging from light pollution to the infamous plastic pollution, the spectrum stretches considerably. Almost all types of pollution are associated with global warming. The ‘National Geographic’ recognizes three crucial forms:

  • Air pollution

  • Water pollution

  • Land pollution

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic halfway through March of 2020. Different countries imposed lockdowns at varying times; though, by April, most countries were experiencing a total nationwide lockdown. Different experiments were made possible due to the unprecedented situation that’s lasted far longer than anyone had anticipated.

While people were confined to their homes, air quality significantly increased. Globally, nitrogen dioxide (an ‘indirect’ greenhouse gas) concentrations decreased by 20%, and particulate matter levels dropped by 31%. Road and air traffic dwindled considerably. Wuhan, the origin of the virus and once one of the most polluted cities in China, experienced a 25% dip in carbon emissions as well as a whopping 40% in nitrogen oxide emissions. According to the American Lung Association, 15% of the US and 27% of China’s mortality rate are related to air pollution.

In short, the lockdown decreased air pollution, whilst air pollution in turn intensified the effects of the virus on victims. So the decrease in pollution during lockdowns helped ‘flatten the curve’ of COVID-19 cases.

In terms of land and water, pollution increased. There was a significant increase in single-use plastics, mainly consisting of masks and gloves as well as other medical PPE, due to the increased dependency. 129 billion masks are used monthly - enough to cover the land area of Switzerland with the current pace. Before the pandemic, it was predicted that by 2050, the net weight of plastics in the ocean would surpass the total weight of fish. What isn’t disposed of correctly will simply be added to the ever-increasing piles pockmarked around the world.

Oil, as we all know, pollutes many aspects of nature, harming natural habitats and the organisms living in them; one of the main factors in air pollution is the combustion of fossil fuels. Oil prices hit an all-time low due to the decreased demands in the pandemic. Recently, oil prices have started climbing back up again, which could potentially fall back down due to the alarming spread of the delta variant across the world.

All in all, the pandemic paved the way to a brief insight to what the world would feel like with what seemed to be cleaner air. The consequences the pandemic has had on pollution have been major in terms of harm, and inconsequential in terms of ‘help’. The small victories are insufficient in winning the ‘war’. A different story can be said about the other forms. Nevertheless, the main concern of pollution, global warming, alarmingly has no signs of deceleration. Different companies may increase production of pollutants to make up for the reduced production during the pandemic. Everything is slowly returning back to normal.


[1] Streiff, Lara. “NASA Model Reveals How Much COVID-related Pollution Levels Deviated from the Norm.” NASA, Nov 17, 2020,

[2] Gardiner, Beth. “Pollution made COVID-19 worse. Now, lockdowns are clearing the air.” National Geographic, April 8, 2020,

[3] Mehta, Radhika. “10 Impacts of Coronavirus on the Environment” Earth5R, September 19, 2020,

[4] Leber, Rebecca. ““Back to normal” puts us back on the path to climate catastrophe.” Vox, June 15, 2021,

[5] Ford, Dave. “COVID-19 Has Worsened the Ocean Plastic Pollution Problem”, Scientific American, 17 August, 2020,


[6[ Bodreau, D., McDaniel, M., Sprout, E., Turgeon, A. “Pollution”, National Geographic, 18 August, 2011,

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