Given the bleakness of the news these days, it’s understandable that some people have been searching for a silver lining in the current COVID outbreak. From clearer waters in Venetian canals and coyotes roaming empty city streets, to better air quality in Italy and China and record low global GHG emissions, there have been a stream of stories about potential environmental upsides.
But even for the observations that are actually true (some of those viral animal videos are bogus, it seems) the benefits may be short-lived.
The more important question is this: What will the long-term impacts of the current crisis be on our environment and our societies? This story has yet to be written.
Will there be a major rebound in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants once the crisis subsides and industries (and traffic) roar back to life? There doesn’t have to be. We could learn a lesson from COVID (and SARS before it) regarding how poor air quality exacerbates the impact of respiratory illnesses and really kick our efforts to reduce emissions into high gear. It’s also an opportunity to better appreciate the powerful link between the air quality impacts of climate change and human health. Scientists are already warning, for example, that climate-driven wildfires could make the current crisis worse by hitting us where it hurts – in our lungs.
Some decisions currently being made are taking us in entirely the wrong direction. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney just laid down $7.5 billion for an oil pipeline that is not going to contribute to much-needed economic diversification let alone a healthier planet. The plastics industry, meanwhile, is taking the opportunity to tout disposable plastic bags and other single use items as a necessity for avoiding the COVID virus — naked opportunism that also has little basis in science (the virus can survive on plastic for up to three days). Plastic waste is piling up as people turn to takeout meals and other disposable plastics.
In addition, the next global climate conference has now been delayed for a year at a time when holding each other to account for our slow progress on climate has never been more important and activists are struggling to keep the urgency of addressing climate change from being drowned out.
More optimistically, the global COVID response demonstrates that it is entirely possible to rapidly put in place ambitious measures to address a crisis. Already, there has been a significant rallying around the idea of building a recovery around green solutions, whether it is deploying renewable energy, retrofitting our homes, building electric cars or cleaning up abandoned oil and gas wells. Supporting workers in the oil and gas sector through such transition initiatives rather than bailing out wealthy fossil fuel giants, is also widely popular.
And there is also the hope that we can make some behaviours adopted during the COVID crisis stick, whether it is working from home more often, cycling or walking to work or flying less. Of course, the stickiness of these changes will depend a lot on what governments do to support them, whether it is building more bike lanes, improving internet in rural areas or building communities better suited to active transportation (walking/cycling). The strengthened sense of community brought about by the current crisis may also be helpful in driving interest in making our neighbourhoods healthier – whether it is reducing local traffic, planting trees or improving indoor air quality by reducing toxics.
But one of the biggest lessons from the COVID crisis lies in its roots. It would appear that the virus jumped from animals to humans through wildlife markets. Our steady encroachment on wild areas has created new pathways for viruses that were previously contained within natural habitats.
COVID-19 is a warning that we mess with planetary systems at our peril. As the recovery from the pandemic gets underway, we need to achieve a permanent reduction in our human footprint so that we can all breathe a little easier.
Rick Smith is the Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute and the co-author of two best-selling books on the human health effects of pollution.