Silver Linings in a Global Pandemic: How Sitting on the Couch all Day is Achieving what Environmentalists have been Working Towards for Decades

The corona virus is wreaking havoc on our global population. Millions of non-essentials are being forced out of work, and thousands are being admitted into hospitals. Nonetheless, every facet of society from citizens to governments, has been working hard to ensure a quick return to “normalcy”. Our extreme reaction to this pandemic is necessary because without government relief or self-isolation we would experience even more death, unemployment, and devastation than we already have.

However, there is another issue deteriorating our planet that has yet to garner much attention or to transform society like COVID-19 has done: Climate change. It is the corona virus of our planet and we have been failing to “peak that curve” for decades.  

The idea of climate change itself has been circulating for centuries but has only been making headlines in recent years. It can be a polarizing topic with deniers often turning a blind eye to the mounting evidence disproving them. They cling to logical fallacies generated from data that they manipulate to fit their rhetoric (i.e. “Today was very cold, how could our planet possibly be warming?”). What is even more troubling is these individuals are not quiet and take up leadership positions in corporations and governments around the world. The president of the United States himself is a climate change opposer masquerading behind fake “green deals” and empty promises.

Climate change is real. To deny so is simply wrong and irresponsible. Furthermore, failure to reverse this warming will surely result in starvation, depletion of resources, spread of disease, and increased poverty. These facts may not scare everyone, but they have incited fear in many and have turned them into environmentalists, eco-minimalists, and sustainability activists fighting to get the world to change their behaviour. However, despite their best efforts no group has ever been so successful at inciting change like COVID-19. This disease has single-handedly shutdown restaurants, public transport, international travel and businesses. It has also forced entire cohorts of our population to stay home, use their vehicles less, and to stop relying on services that they once believed they could not live without. While this may all seem very bleak, there is a silver lining: the environment is flourishing.

Quarantine and Emissions:

Due to self-isolation, the working class is ditching their long commutes to work for shorter ones to their home office. Furthermore, travel bans are being put in place and drastically reducing the number of planes taking off. These cuts are removing significant polluters from the roads and the sky and are causing emissions to continue to drop to levels that even the most devout environmentalist could not have hoped for. China’s emissions sunk by a quarter, Italy saw significant decreases in NO2 pollution, and New York experienced extreme reductions in traffic levels causing further decreases in CO and CO2 concentrations. The benefits of these reductions go further than simply slowing climate change. Air pollution is known to cause airway inflammation, respiratory infections, asthma, COPD, lung cancer, stroke and heart disease. Early studies are predicting that with such large reductions in green-house gas emissions, China could see a 6% reduction in mortality due to decreased air pollutants. However, this change is likely not permanent. While quarantine continues to be enforced by nations worldwide, emissions will stay low. But when restrictions are lifted, we will resume travelling and go back to work. Of course, return to normalcy will be gradual, but people will want to get back to their regularly scheduled programming; and this will be accompanied by a spike in emissions. This is not a novel concept. In the financial crisis of 2008, the world also experienced a drop in emissions, but when individuals found their footing once more, emissions rose and continued to rise until they far surpassed levels before the crash. While we may be breathing cleaner air for now, it is not expected to last. So suck it in while you can!

Quarantine and Consumerism:

Quarantine has done more than take vehicles off the road and planes out of the sky. It has also closed businesses and services and forced individuals to restructure the way they consume goods. Instead of frequenting restaurants, people are relying on their own skills to cook a meal. Popular activities such as clubs and theme parks have been temporarily closed and entertainment is now being accessed remotely. Furthermore, people are wearier of reckless spending as unemployment skyrockets and work becomes less dependable. More families than ever are considering what is truly worth their dime.

The economic climate that preceded the viral outbreak, however, was based around consumption for the sake of consumption. The make-up products we yearned for and designer brands we lusted after did nothing more than take money out of our pockets and increase corporate capital. Most importantly, our consumption patterns were not sustainable. Our increasing demand for new products ranging from useless to down-right ridiculous and the ability to pay for them with the tap of a card only encouraged companies to increase production of goods that just end up in junkyards. This creation of waste is especially damaging to our environment as more landfills are developed to sustain it and even more garbage is diverted to our oceans.

Our consumption patterns needed to change, and quarantine has not fixed them. In fact, it has only further divided society into those who, more than ever, wonder where their next meal will come from and those who are simply waiting out the storm comfortably. It is this privileged group that needs to take a step back and examine their spending behaviour. While they self-quarantine without some of the luxuries they once enjoyed, they need to consider whether or not these luxuries were ever truly necessary.

How Should Life Change After Restrictions are Lifted?

So, with all of the changes we are experiencing as a result of this pandemic, what does the future look like? If asked this question two months ago, I would have naïvely answered, “The same!” At the time, the world was just beginning to experience the damage of the virus and I could have never dreamed that I would still be self-quarantining 2 months later. However, as time went on and more businesses closed and work and school moved online indefinitely, the world started to change forever.

It is going to take years, not months for global economies to recover from the damage. Many businesses are simply never going to re-open, and job opportunities are going to be very bleak for the foreseeable future. This is the change we have to accept, but there is some change that we should be willing to make.

Businesses should restructure their work weeks to become more flexible. Prior to the pandemic, many regularly struggled to get to work. Quarantine has demonstrated that it is possible to work remotely and that it is often a better option. Remote offices will also reduce the amount of commuting and travelling taking place thus reducing overall emissions.

Individuals also need to change their spending habits. The amount we were consuming was extremely damaging to our environment and was providing little enrichment to our lives. It is important that those who are finding themselves privileged during this time consider how they can change their lifestyle to be more sustainable as they usually have the most powerful footprint on our planet.

Despite the environmental gains quarantine has brought, it is undoubtedly not worth the extreme pain it has caused. Families are losing essential income and struggling to make do with the relief packages provided. The elderly population is being disproportionately afflicted and left behind by the nursing homes we trust to take care of them. Furthermore, humans are lacking basic social interactions that can be essential in maintaining their mental health. This is not how environmentalists envisioned they would bring about change. However, if you can, use quarantine as a time of reflection on ways you can positively make a difference in our environment. The virus has by no means solved our problems; it has simply showed us the power we have to fix them.


Referenced Material:

Amekudzi-Kennedy, A., Labi, S., Woodall, B., Chester, M., Singh, P. (2020). Reflections on pandemics, civil infrastructure and sustainable development: Five lessons from COVID-19 through the lens of transportation. Preprints. doi: 10.20944/preprints202004.0047.v1

Anjum, N. A. (2020). Good in the worst: COVID-19 restrictions and ease in global air pollution. Preprints. doi: 10.20944/preprints202004.0069.v1

Bashir, M. F., Bilal, B. M., Komal, B., Bashir, M. A., Tan, D., Bashir, M. (2020). Correlation between climate indicators and COVID-19 pandemic in New York, USA. Science of the Total Environment, 728(1). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.138835

Brooks, S.K., Webster, R. K., Smith, L.E., Woodland, L., Wessely, S., Greenberg. N., Rubin, G. J. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: Rapid review of the evidence. The Lancet, 395(10227): 912-920. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30460-8

Cohen, M.J. (2020). Does the COVID-19 outbreak mark the onset of a sustainable consumption transition? Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy, 16(1): 1-3. https://doi.org/10.1080/15487733.2020.1740472

Dutheil, F., Baker, J.S., Valentin, N. (2020). COVID-19 as a factor influencing air pollution.
Environmental Pollution, 263. doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2020.114466

Mattioli, A.V. & Puviani, M. B. (2020). Lifestyle at time of COVID-19: How could quarantine affect cardiovascular risk. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827620918808

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