By Gretchen Greene, Rabia Ahmed, and Jeri Sawyer from Greene Economics, with contributions from Deborah McGrathProfessor of Biology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. 


The COVID19 pandemic has dramatically changed nearly every aspect of our livesOur collective willingness to act to minimize the contagion is a stark reminder that we can and must work together to manage the natural environmentThese actions and the resulting global economic shock offer unique opportunities to better understand how we impact the natural world and manage our environmentEmerging opportunities include a call for more research on humanwildlife interactions and heightened awareness of the profound connection between environmental quality and economic activityChallenges include innovative funding mechanisms for environmental management and preserving economic stability while maintaining environmental compliance and enforcementBelow, woutline key challenges and opportunities for the environmental sector. 


  • There is a clear need for improved management of protected areas so that wild can stay wild.1 SARS, MERS, and H1N1 are all zoonotic infections that emerge quickly, spread rapidly, have high fatality rates, and for which no vaccine can be quickly developedThese diseases originate from increasingly greater human interaction with wildlife populations that serve as reservoirs for novel pathogens. Human encroachment into wildlife habitat through forest clearing and land-use changeillegal wildlife and bushmeat trade, and wet markets (in which domestic and wild animals mingle before on-site slaughter)all serve as potential points of zoonotic transfer.2 Since nearly 75 percent of new infectious diseases are zoonotic global health experts now embrace the “One Health” model which is a collaborative, multisector and transdisciplinary approach that recognizes that the health of people is closely connected to the health of other animals, plants and our shared environment. 

          Environmental Research Opportunity: Collaborative Research on Zoonotic Diseases and Human/Wildlife        Interface

          Environmental Research ChallengeTranslating Results into Coordinated Detection, Prevention, Response, and Control Plan


  • The abrupt decline in our normal economic production and sales is creating a host of impacts as people lose income and have fewer resources to feed and care for their familiesTypically, poor and vulnerable populations suffer disproportionatelyAt the same time, the slowdown provides a window of opportunity as we recognize the direct relationship between our economic activity and its environmental impactOne striking example is the significant improvement in air quality around the globeas portrayed in post-pandemic photographs from Wuhan China, London, and the U.SResearch shows that between 100,000 and 200,000 people in the U.S. die from poor air quality each year,3 and approximately seven million people die globally.4 We have to wonder, can we come together to improve air quality intentionally to save lives just as we have rallied to save lives from the pandemic? An interesting question to consider: How do lives saved from cleaner air compare to those lost by deaths from COVID-19?
  • An unexpected outcome has been reduction in noise pollution, especially in urban areasSeismologists who study the rumblings of citywide transit systems, traffic, construction, and other sources have noticed less noise from Wuhan to Europe to New York, and global noise reduction improves the detection of earthquakes. The reduction in cruise ships and other maritime traffic has eased pressure on whales and other ocean species. Anecdotally, citizens are taking notice of bird calls and appreciating the natural world like never before.
  • Water quality may be affected by global slowing of production and attendant pollution, but reports of improved water quality (for example, online claims that water clarity in Venice, Italy had dramatically improved with reduced tourism)were not scientifically supportedStill, because water may appear to improve in quality, this can serve to raise awareness of the direct relationship between human activity and the environmentMeanwhile, researchers are as yet unclear about whether or not COVID19 could be viable threat to swimmers, as a result of raw or undertreated sewage being released to surface watersThe virus lives for several days in sewage, lending itself to transmission through fecal-oral routes.
  • The economic slowdown also has caused a temporary reduction in energy demand, fossil fuel use, and associated emissions. Restricted travel has reduced fuel consumption for cars, ships, and airplanesWhile this represents a temporary boon for air quality, the emissions reduction is unlikely to be sustained once economic activity picks up. With the normalization of virtual meetings and conferences, it is unclear whether global travel patterns will resume to pre-COVID19 levels.
  • The temporary reduction in fuel demand has (in part) caused a steep reduction in oil pricesTypically, a lower price would encourage a rebound in fuel demand as individuals and businesses switch to less expensive fuel sources and/or consume more gas because it is cheaperUnfortunately, there may be a prolonged downward pressure on oil prices as a result of an ongoing price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia 

          Environmental Impact Awareness Opportunity: It is hard to miss the cleaner air, and how life looks with less consumption and production.

          Environmental Impact Awareness Challenge: Transforming awareness into action once we have returned to more normal lifestyles.


  • Both public health and the natural environment are public goods, historically necessitating government funding for most of the care and management of the natural environmentWith the current stress on fiscal budgets created by emergency health care and economic needs stemming from the pandemic, funding for environmental priorities will have lower priorityFor example, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee was forced to cut $50 million in proposed new climate change funding due to the fiscal crisis created by COVID-19Such cuts in government support for environmental protection are likely to persist over the long term because the economic slowdown will simultaneously decrease state and local government tax revenues.
  • Many companies are experiencing lost revenues and/or an inability to operate due to COVID19 restrictions. In response, the EPA recognizes that such economic hardship may affect reporting obligations and milestones set forth in settlements and consent decrees and “the ability of an operation to meet enforceable limitations on air emissions and water discharges, requirements for the management of hazardous waste, or requirements to ensure and provide safe drinking water.5 This decision demonstrates that environmental priorities remain lower than necessary goods and services; that is, when incomes decline, demand for environmental services decline more than proportionallyFrom an economic perspective, this signals that environmental services are perceived as a “luxury item. 

          Environmental Policy and Enforcement ChallengeDuring the pandemic, public funding for environmental policies may be reallocated for health and economic emergencies, while revenues decline.

          Environmental Policy Funding and Enforcement OpportunityGreater incentive to turn to environmental funding and policy solutions that use fewer public resources such as innovative private-public partnerships.


  • Agricultural production is somewhat exempt from the economic hiatus given that it is generally considered part of our critical infrastructureHowever, agricultural labor is not immune to COVID19. The recent shutdown of Smithfield pork production in South Dakota, which processes about five percent of the nation’s porkdemonstrates that the impacts of an outbreak inside the agricultural supply chain can be significantSimilarly, about 25 percent of hired farm labor in crops and crop support is conducted through the H-2A guest farmworkers program for foreign nationals, who come to the U.S. on temporary work visasAlthough the U.S. Department of State is expanding the program in the face of the pandemic, it is not clear whether there will be an adequate supply of healthy farm workers – domestic or foreign – to meet the needs of normal production. Finally, the lost sales and interrupted supply channels related to food that normally goes to restaurants and educational institutions are causing additional snags in getting products to consumers. The resulting production decisions by farmers will have a widespread impact on environmental conditions, from produce that remains in the field, to reductions in water use, to changes in farming practices. 

          Agricultural and Food Security Challenge: As food supply and distribution channels fail with failing worker health, and supply-chain upheaval will low-income communities be able to feed their families?

          Agricultural and Food Security OpportunityAchieving food security through more localized farming systems gains importance as a result of the pandemic, with an increase in small and urban farms and greater reliance on more sustainable agroecological practices.


  • We can learn a lot from the idiom “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure because, as the pandemic crisis underscores, we often fail to invest in prevention and instead react to crisisRisk awareness research shows that while preparedness for all manner of unexpected emergencies makes good sense in the long-run, most people never think unpredictable and catastrophic events will happen to them. This lack of public understanding of risk translates into an unwillingness to accept the financial burden of preparation. We hope that a silver lining from this pandemic will be that this pandemic IS happening to everyone. Perhaps the experience will strengthen our collective willingness to invest in the needed collaborative preparation, detection, and response to the next zoonotic infection,6 as well as create more resilient health care systems that are available to all citizens.
  • There are numerous parallels between the COVID19 and climate change crisesChanges in our lives as we know them may come more slowly with climate change than with the current urgent response to the pandemic. Like the pandemic response, climate change impacts will also be global, unpredictable, and costly. Climate change will also take a toll on public health and affect vulnerable populations the most, thereby heightening discussions of inequities across race, culture, and socioeconomic status. However, unlike a viral infection for which a vaccine will be developed, global climate change is likely irreversible. 

          Environmental Risk Challenge: Communicating risk and putting in place mitigation strategies to reduce long-run community destruction at the hand of the environmental forces is a difficult decision to make – especially during a crisis.

          Environmental Risk OpportunityOnce we recover from the pandemic, the lessons we learn can inspire a collaborative approach to preventing future damage associated with changing climate and the other pressures we place on the natural environment.

(This article is also posted on the Greene Economics website, and is part of a series by the consulting firm on the effects of COVID-19. You can view this and other blogs in the series at the Greene Economics Blog.)

[1] Anderson, Inger, 2020. COVID-19 is not a silver lining for the climate, says UN Environment chief, available at:

[2] Belay ED, Kile JC, Hall AJ, Barton-Behravesh C, Parsons MB, Salyer S, et al. Zoonotic disease programs for enhancing global health security. Emerg Infect Dis. 2017 Suppl.

[3] Christopher W. Tessum el al., “Inequity in consumption of goods and services adds to racial-ethnic disparities in air pollution exposure,” PNAS (2019).

[4] World Health Organization, Health Topics, Air Pollution, available at: accessed on April 13, 2020.

[5] COVID-19 Implications for EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Program, Susan Bodine, Agency Administrator, March 26, 2020. Available at:, accessed April 13, 2020.

[6] Belay ED, Kile JC, Hall AJ, Barton-Behravesh C, Parsons MB, Salyer S, et al. Zoonotic disease programs for enhancing global health security. Emerg Infect Dis. 2017 Suppl.