The COVID-19 pandemic and sustainability are linked in a way that wasn’t experienced with past pandemics. There’s something about the international response that allows many to draw parallels to the fight against climate change in a way that Ebola and H1N1 did not. Let’s talk about the environmental impact of COVID-19.

First some context: Global pandemics are not new – they are an expected part of our civilization and must be planned for accordingly to mitigate the loss of life and economic damage. In the past 11 years, we’ve fought the Ebola outbreak and the H1N1 pandemic, with many others in preceding decades, and yet around the world governments, communities, and households were blindsided by COVID-19.

COVID Unprepared

This echoes the climate crisis –  before COVID took over the airwaves, we were talking about Greta, and before Greta, there was An Inconvenient Truth, and before that, there was Earth Day – and yet as seas rise and climate disasters uptick, governments, communities, and households have been flat-footed.

climate change trends
image source

The human brain is built to respond to issues in the here and now, and our fight or flight response doesn’t trigger based on future maladies – it is just how we are wired.  The COVID-19 pandemic is a here-and-now issue and gets tremendous focus for good reason, while climate change – even as it affects us this very minute – always seems to be a problem on the horizon to be dealt with slowly, later, or not at all.

COVID-19 is not entirely the harbinger of bad news. I am not saying that I’m glad this is happening to all of us (and happening so much more to our most vulnerable), but I do see hope as we work together to #flattenthecurve – we can apply this experience to the climate change crisis.

Here’s what is giving me hope about the environmental impact of covid-19:

  • The international scientific community came together swiftly and is working closely on a COVID-19 response. This proves that the world community is capable of working collaboratively to solve a problem bigger than any one of our respective countries.
  • The connection between the COVID-19 response and climate change is happening regularly, coming from places you would not expect, bringing the realities of this threat to a broader audience than was listening previously. I’d like to see comparisons of COVID-19 deaths and economic impacts on what is anticipated with the direct and indirect impacts of climate change.  Maybe that will help wake up our communities and governments to the value of decarbonization.
  • In the corporate world, we’ve seen a dramatic shift to remote collaboration via video conferencing and other tools.  Teleworking is not new, but we apparently needed a pandemic to jumpstart widespread use. Teleworking has short- and long-term effects on transportation emissions and will likely impact hiring and real estate decision making moving forward, which may lead to a reduced real estate footprint for some organizations.  Buildings and construction make up 39% of global carbon emissions, so any reduction will be impactful.
  • Maybe on the most human of scales, many of us a quarantining at home with our families, spending more time together indoors and out.  Time outside in nature is a great reminder of the value of this precious resource, and for me as the mother of two – I am reminded of our generations’ collective inaction to protect it for the next generation.
  • Many of us are visual, so seeing the photographic evidence from space on slower production is quite eye-opening.  Scientists are measuring the positive impact the global shutdown has had on air quality in cities around the world. The focus on health that comes with a pandemic will hopefully transcend COVID-19 and the global community will recognize that air quality, both inside and outside buildings, impacts human health.  A strong economy and clean air are not mutually exclusive – we can have both if we are smart about it.
Coronavirus impact on carbon in china
Levels of nitrogen dioxide are significantly lower over China then they were at the same time in 2019. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

If you are reading this from your home office, then you are one proof point that our world community is capable of swift changes to the way we operate in the face of a crisis. There is no reason we cannot do the same to adapt our behavior to address climate change. With this coronavirus pandemic, the economic and social impacts have been largely negative; however the benefits of dramatic changes to our systems to address climate change would have positive economic, environmental, health, and social benefits.

I want us all to get back to the new normal – but I also want to consider what we can collectively learn from this moment and the environmental impact of COVID-19 to make things better starting on day one of our next chapter.

quarantine hope

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