Coronavirus Shutdowns Bring Unintended Climate Benefits and A Lesson

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by Annabelle Allen


Headlines on climate change can make climate issues seem insurmountable. Almost daily, dire warnings of floods and fires, famines and droughts are given. The climate crisis seems inevitable and it makes our own actions seem minuscule and can disable people from acting. But the stringent lockdowns to stop the spread of the coronavirus have brought unintended climate benefits.

Reports show that canals in Venice are clearer than they have been in decades, and air pollution has decreased in some of the world’s greatest cities. These record breaking changes show individuals that we are in fact capable of impacting the climate crisis.

Jacqueline Klopp, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University in New York City, said she expects to see greenhouse gas emissions plummet as the quarantine measures continue. According to The New York Times, Roisin Commane, an assistant professor at Columbia who conducts the air monitoring work in New York City, found that emissions of carbon monoxide over New York City have declined more than 50 percent below average levels due to decreased traffic. Though it is too early to measure some of these effects, some of these changes are also being seen in the rivertowns, where most schools are closed and businesses are shuttered.

“Anywhere you go in Westchester the traffic is reduced. I feel like I am noticing that the air quality is better as well,” said Anne Jaffe Holmes, a member of the Federated Conservationists of Westchester County (FCWC) and the Irvington Green Policy Task Force. Parks and trails throughout the rivertowns have seen an influx of people, teeming with hikers, walkers and runners.

Dean Gallea, co-chair of The Tarrytown Environmental Advisory Council (TEAC), said that people have changed their lifestyles and are reconnecting with the natural world. “Since people are at home more, there’s been a lot of talk about doing yard work, planting your pollinator garden. People’s local gardens get better tended because they have more time to spend on them,” he said.

Jaffe Holmes is busy working to figure out how to quantify these changes so that people do become aware that we have choices and control over our impact on the natural world. “We need to start educating people because this is showing us the potential for cleaning up the environment,” Jaffe Holmes explained. “We will be making a big mistake if we don’t use this pause to learn the right lessons. I think that every human being on this planet is being changed right now and we have an opportunity to really assess the direction we have been going.”

Conversely, some people point out that cultural shifts caused by COVID-19 aren’t all beneficial. Gallea highlighted that people are purchasing more goods from stores and therefore producing more waste. “This means that any industrial facilities that are focused on supplying these stores are running 24/7,” he said.

Others have also expressed concern that online orders and takeout may contribute to increases in waste and that the environmental rebounds are temporary.

However, maybe the point is not that these changes are temporary, but that these changes are possible. “Hopefully, witnessing the stark contrast of a suddenly healthier environment will encourage people to demand we protect it,” said Haven Colgate, a member of the Hastings Conservation Commission. “Perhaps as we rebuild our shredded economy in the years to come, workers from some of the hardest-hit industries can shift into sustainable technologies. If we’re smart,” she added.

This pause has given the environment some respite, and as we move to restart our economies many believe we should use this moment to think about what we value.

“So now that we’ve had a pause in the consumer economy, we have a chance to put it back together in a different way,” said Colgate. “It’s gonna take consciousness on the part of every individual and a clarity about what it is we really want when we emerge from this.”

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