When you look out at the crystal blue skies over California, it doesn’t look like a deadly pandemic.
In fact, the Bay Area is basking in its cleanest air in months, if not years. And we’re not alone. Satellite photos of China show an unprecedented drop in pollution. Worldwide greenhouse gas emissions are falling. And even the planet’s rivers and bays are clearing up, including the famously murky canals of Venice.
At a huge cost to the global economy, Earth is getting a rare gulp of fresh air as society shuts down in the face of the coronavirus outbreak. It’s an environmental boon that decades of green activism could not achieve.
The improvement isn’t likely to last, however. Once the world comes roaring back to life, so too will the ecological carnage. Or will it? Environmental experts say that cleaner days could lie ahead, that is, if we permanently adopt some of the climate-friendly practices we’ve accidentally embraced during the shutdown — working remotely being just one — and if federal stimulus money can be steered toward green infrastructure.“In many ways we don’t want to live the way we’re living (now). But perhaps some good will come of this,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University. “If the coronavirus helps transform our consumption and our energy supply, it could have lasting effects.”
The masses now working from home, clocking in on laptops and using video conferencing apps instead of driving to work or flying to a convention, is the most apparent and perhaps most Earth-friendly shift in societal behavior recently.
It’s something that workers and their bosses are learning is not too difficult, and might continue after the pandemic is long gone, say Jackson and others. Same goes for telemedicine and tele-education and other remote activities that have spiked with the outbreak.
“My wife’s ceramics guild had their first Zoom meeting. They were surprised how nice it was,” Jackson said. “The virus really provides opportunity for us to rethink travel and work.”
Transportation is the largest driver of global warming in the United States and much of the world. So even a small contraction can have a big impact.
In the Bay Area, traffic has decreased as much as 70% since stay-at-home directives were issued last month. The reduction translates to at least a 20% drop in air-choking particulate matter and at least a 26% drop in heat-trapping carbon emissions, according to estimates from the local air district. Similar declines are being reported in metro areas around the globe.
Joanna Lombard, a professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture and a climate mitigation expert, takes the idea of staying close to home one step further.
She said she believes that the pandemic could prompt people who have gotten stir crazy at home to begin demanding more of their communities and push to make them more livable. More shopping and recreating locally, she says, could result in wholesale reductions in automobile travel — and greenhouse gas emissions.
And, if goods are produced closer to home, it would shorten supply chains and cut even more emissions, she said. Already, some farmers have seen a boost in direct sales to local residents since the shutdown.
“All of a sudden, people are having to pay attention to where they live,” Lombard said. “We look around and see that there are amenities that have been neglected. Maybe this will alert us to the idea that planning is good and we can reinvent our neighborhoods.
“It doesn’t mean you cut off global commerce,” she added, “but when you want to go local, you can.”
The shelter-in-place orders have led to other behavioral changes that are tougher to gauge from an environmental perspective. The uptick in online shopping, for example, is beneficial in cutting carbon emissions when purchases are part of streamlined mass delivery operation and deter trips to Costco in the family SUV, experts say. But if it’s a single pack of toilet paper rushed out in an Amazon van, emissions increase.
Eating in, versus eating out, is another wild card, with a yet-to-be determined verdict. It’s dependent on a wide range of factors, including what is consumed, packaging and food waste.
“There are different ways that these activities can affect your carbon footprint,” said Maya Almaraz, program manager for the Working Lands Innovation Center at UC Davis, who has studied behavior and climate change. “I’m just hoping this (pandemic) can be an excuse for people to re-evaluate the way we think about our health and our consumption, and use it as an opportunity.”
Almaraz also said that people’s willingness to quickly change their lives as they’ve done in response to the coronavirus is hope that people could make adjustments to counter global warming.
Pandemics have altered how people live before. Elena Conis, a historian of public health at UC Berkeley, can point to nearly every widespread outbreak of infectious disease over the past few centuries and recall how it modified human behavior.
The AIDS epidemic led to people practicing safe sex. The tuberculosis pandemic halted the once-common practice of spitting in public. Puerperal fever prompted doctors to begin washing their hands before delivering babies.
“Today we don’t even think about these changes,” said Conis, noting how ingrained those behaviors have become. “We’re all very curious what the world will look like when we come out of this pandemic.”
The money that the federal government has begun pumping into the economy to prevent a recession could also be a catalyst for change. Environmental advocates are pushing to fund projects that will keep a lid on greenhouse gas emissions. Other nations are doing the same.
The widely reported 25% plunge in carbon emissions during the coronavirus outbreak in China, the world’s biggest polluter, many say, is what a future with clean infrastructure could look like.
“A green stimulus is a way governments could commit to building back greener, stronger and more equitably,” said Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at UC Berkeley, who last month helped author a spending proposal sent to Congress from dozens of scientists and academics from across the United States.
The plan includes sweeping government investments in renewable energy, public transit, high-density housing and energy-saving retrofits of homes and businesses.
The $2 trillion stimulus package signed by President Trump last week does not include this type of spending. But Congress has already begun to consider another round of relief, and many Democrats are on board with hefty expenditures on green infrastructure. So far, Republicans have fought such climate-friendly moves as tax credits for renewable energy.
Kammen says there’s room for compromise in the next package. Green programs, for example, could come alongside Republican-sought industry aid, with conditions attached, like limiting pollution.
While lamenting the coronavirus outbreak, Kammen says few people would be opposed to the clean air and fewer greenhouse gas emissions that the world is experiencing now.
“To look at COVID-19 as an environmental benefit is the wrong perspective,” he said. “What it highlights, though, is how much environmental improvement can come with easy transitions.”
Source: San Fransisco Chronicle