COVID-19 has revealed our potential as a society to slow climate change—and our shortcomings so far

Author: Carly Schaefer Published: September 29, 2020

It’s nearing the end of September, 2020. I have been working from home for more than six months—still feeling unsettled in the new normal of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rolling out of bed and immediately beginning my workday had its perks at first. As a notorious night owl, I appreciate the extra morning time that working from home affords me in place of preparing to be in public for the day and commuting to downtown Seattle.

Time, however, is not all I save by working from home. I have refueled my car only twice since March, compared to my typical weekly fill-ups; I have prepared more meals at home, rather than grabbing coffee and goods to go; and generally, I have been purchasing more goods from local sources and distributors in a conscientious effort to support my fellow Washingtonians.

What do these changes have in common? Waste stream impacts.

Less fuel spent on personal transportation and less distance to freight local goods results in fewer emissions of air pollution and greenhouse gases. Less single-use packaging and generation of plastics results in less waste at solid waste facilities.

I’m not the only one who has noticed. In India, residents of the northern state of Punjab are seeing the Himalayas from their homes for the first time in decades;[1] huge emission reductions in China may have saved 77,000 lives in just two months; in Pakistan, the government is hiring unemployed citizens to replant forests. As economic systems are hampered, natural systems are excelling. In my own community, I have noticed that the Olympic Mountains and Mt. Rainier seem crisper.

Reducing local air pollution has the potential to improve livelihoods by providing cleaner air and improved aesthetics, and in some cases increases carbon capture. These benefits to the environment also correlate to public health benefits, which intersect with numerous anthropogenic systems.

In contrast to these benefits, there have been environmental effects from COVID-19, too. Plastic generation has seen an uptick in many parts of the world, due to increased  demand for to-go containers and a need for online shopping (i.e., more packaging than normal),[2] leading to overstressed recycling and waste facilities.[3] This has resulted in more plastic pollution, less oversight due to budget constraints, and deregulation leading to an increase in illegal deforestation, especially in the Amazon rainforest.[4]

Where do we go from here?

Is there a way to leverage COVID-19 to change human behavior and its impacts on naturally occurring systems? Many experts believe it is possible. As we phase out of quarantine and stay-at-home orders, we need to reflect on how business has been conducted—and how we can reimagine economics to account for their intersection with social, climate, and environmental systems.

Considering climate change in forthcoming economic stimulus packages is an action that can be taken. One option is to include “green strings” provisions that require climate benefits in exchange for funding. Another is directly subsidizing alternative energy and resource protection and enhancement industries, similar to how the U.S. has historically subsidized coal and oil.

Other experts and activists argue that we cannot simply seek alternatives and incremental changes to avoid increasing global temperatures by 2 degrees- Celsius (the threshold for irreparable damage). We must change the paradigm of our systems—specifically system goals and appropriate measures to monitor progress in the most transparent way possible.

COVID-19 is a test run of our ability to cooperate on a global scale to solve difficult problems that transcend borders. Putting people first and prioritizing health now and for future generations must be at the forefront of our practices. This pandemic is challenging us all on many fronts and exposing gaps in our systems—but I am confident that we will come out stronger and more unified against future challenges, especially climate change.





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Carly Schaefer Air Quality, Climate Change and Resilience, Engineering, Environmental
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