Moore: The Silver Lining of COVID-19

After the pandemic is over, we must continue to work toward a healthier planet.

by Chelsea Moore | 4/30/20 2:00am

In major cities, traffic is slowing and skies are clearing. In small towns and suburban settings, people are spending more time outside. As society shuts down in response to coronavirus, our earth is getting a rare breath of fresh air. 

Certainly, the coronavirus is a devastating pandemic, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths across the globe. A significant number of people are in quarantine, our daily routines are altered and the number of cases continues to rise. Though these implications are difficult to overlook, the virus is — if only as a silver lining — teaching us an important lesson. This pandemic, by drastically restricting human activity, is offering a glimpse of what a healthier, environmentally conscious world might offer us. It presents an opportunity for society to reorient our relationship with the outside world and focus on environmental change. COVID-19 is initiating a change in our emissions practices. Such changes must be maintained, at least in some form, well after the pandemic passes. 

With global economic activity ramping down, there has been a huge reduction in energy consumption and use of transport. This has led to a significant decrease in the emissions of multiple harmful atmospheric gases and air pollutants.

The absence of daily commutes, alongside reductions in air travel, has led to fewer greenhouse gas emissions and a healthier atmosphere. According to researchers from Columbia University, national carbon monoxide emissions — released mainly from vehicles — have fallen by around 50 percent since mid-February. And traffic levels in New York City are estimated to be down 35 percent compared to a year ago, contributing to a solid drop in methane emissions and a five to ten percent drop in carbon dioxide over the city. 

Carbon Brief — an online database that analyzes emissions levels — has found similar results internationally. In February alone, both Italy and China’s carbon dioxide emissions fell by a quarter. During this same period, the average coal consumption of Chinese power plants fell to a four-year low — plummeting to 36 percent of previous capacity.  In addition, NASA has released satellite images that show a dramatic reduction in international emissions of nitrogen dioxide — a greenhouse gas that causes cancer and respiratory problems and is released from vehicles, power plants and industrial facilities. China’s level of nitrogen dioxide, for instance, was down by 42 percent. 

Not only has there been an improvement in our world’s atmospheric quality, there’s also been a societal shift in perspective — from ecological ignorance to a revived appreciation of the environment. Most of us have lost our daily routines and are forced to spend many hours inside and online. Companies and schools are realizing that their businesses can stay afloat even with employees working from home. Our frantic lifestyles, full of relentless production and consumption, are being forced to change. In places where the environment is accessible, people are using the outdoors as an outlet to break up the monotony of our long days inside. When all else fails, we still have the natural world to interact with, and we are beginning to realize its importance. 

But how do we extend these eco-centered practices — namely less transportation use and more time spent enjoying nature — to the point of permanence? 

First, having learned to live with fewer resources, we should continue to monitor our overconsumption, remembering that we do not need to take three shopping trips per week or drive downtown for coffee every morning. We should extend this behavioral shift further, limiting driving and flying to as little as possible. Lifestyles that include frequent air travel or long-distance commuting should, from an environmental perspective, be seen as irresponsible. 

Next, we should reflect on the value that the natural world holds for us during quarantine and continue that relationship beyond the crisis. This means not only getting outside and interacting with the environment on a daily basis, but recognizing climate change as a threat similar to the pandemic. It is vital that we transfer the fear and sense of urgency around COVID-19 to the slower-moving threat of climate change. The pandemic is a catalyst for much needed action and should be taken as the beginning of a meaningful shift in behavior. As we’ve seen, changes in personal habits are possible. After the pandemic, if we all make conscious efforts to avoid reverting back to our previous behavior, we could influence societal behavior for years to come. And the Earth would be better off for it.

As we move to restart economies, we need to think about what we’ve learned as a society and what we value. We should avoid reverting to the status quo and begin to reduce emissions and pollution. Unless we change the fundamental relationship between humans and the environment, and how we view our natural world, we are going to lurch from disaster to disaster. But if we take these lessons from COVID-19 to heart and act on a renewed appreciation for our natural world, change can continue beyond the end of quarantine.