1 December 2020

Coronavirus Reshapes Human Environmental Impacts, Showing That We Can, Too

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Ardent recyclers and conscious shoppers have long been told by skeptics that their individual efforts do not make a significant impact on global environmental conditions. The coronavirus-imposed reductions in travel, production, and consumption, which reduced CO2 emissions around the world, demonstrate that many individual changes do transform environmental impacts.

Every small action makes a meaningful contribution to the aggregate human impact on atmospheric CO2. The undeniably huge declines in air pollution in China and Italy, the two countries hardest hit by COVID-19, show that transportation changes could reset the world’s CO2 output. Thes economic and environmental impacts exist on a continuum and we must make trade-offs all the time.

Can we use the disruption today to talk about economic priorities? The answer is a resounding “Yes.” But old habits threaten to return with greater environmental consequences if we do not take this opportunity to lower emissions, reduce food waste, use less water, and squeeze inefficiencies out of supply chains.

We’ll look at some of the possible changes to our economy in this article, and future installments. Of course, there are offsetting uses of CO2-emitting energy in all the countries affected by the novel coronavirus. But these back-of-the-envelope numbers hint at the potential for environmental benefits from a post-virus investment in a green economy.

Going renewable instead of back to fossil fuels

In Italy, the decline in nitrogen dioxide levels demonstrates that the clearing of air pollution is largely due to diesel vehicles sitting idle. What if we converted the world’s trucking infrastructure to electric and sourced power solely from renewables? The same reduction in NO2 could be extended globally.

Also, China’s CO2 levels fell by 25 percent during February. That captures a picture of emissions changes that could be locked in if China used more public transportation. But China has embraced the personal automobile over public transportation. China purchased 28 million new cars in 2018, almost 10 million more than the U.S. Suppressed emissions from vehicles, industry, and power generation in the country suggests that a robust Chinese renewable energy program could displace as much as 2.26 million metric tons of CO2 annually (based on emissions estimates from the Union of Concerned Scientists).

If the top 10 CO2 emitting economies went with renewable electric power for transportation, the resulting decrease in CO2 would eliminate 17.9 percent of the annual human contribution to atmospheric CO2. If renewables replaced fossil fuels in power generation globally, 33.1 percent of annual global CO2 emissions would be eliminated — and the world would be making significant progress toward the Paris Accord goals and possibly avert catastrophic climate warming.

An aggressive infrastructure program for the United States will be needed to spur the economy after the pandemic passes. The reality is that our leaders and many companies are deeply invested in the current fossil-fueled economy. The collapse of oil prices, as Russia and Saudi Arabia seek to control production levels, has placed renewable energy at a short-term disadvantage to fossil fuels. That will propel the use of oil around the world in the wake of pandemic unless citizens speak up for public transportation.

If you are looking for a cause to fill your time now, make it a campaign for local awareness about the benefits of sustainable transportation alternatives, including electric personal vehicles.

Reflections for a time of pandemic

Rethinking worker transitions from polluting industries. Making the trade-offs requires we measure all the impacts, including those that fall on our fellow citizens. The dialogue about coal, for example, has long been conducted as a zero-sum game: someone —coal miner — is portrayed as “losing” a career, even though retraining programs could help them and their children into higher-paying, healthier work. For older miners, perhaps a generous partial retirement income can unlock their ability to contribute to changing their communities.

Recognizing that the minimum wage is not sufficient for essential workers. Earth911 readers have pointed out that the benefits of at-home work, which is now required due to the pandemic, are not available to hourly workers. Perhaps, COVID-19 will show that the workers in food service, cashiers at grocery stores, EMTs, nurses and caregivers, as well as garbage collectors and janitors, are worth more than the minimum wage because they face higher disease risk and keep things running. The pandemic could result in better pay and benefits for people who get hands-on to make the global economy local and personal.

Recognizing that some plastic is essential, but only if it can be recycled. We also cannot ignore negative environmental impacts appearing because of COVID-19. We need to rethink how we address issues like plastic, which does play a role in advanced healthcare. For example, the explosion in rubber and latex glove sales, as well as the difficulty in recycling hazardous medical waste — much of which is plastic — has shown that some uses of petrochemicals can be essential to human health and, nevertheless, must be reinvented. Continued use of some plastic that will be responsibly recycled does appear to be a good idea. Although many find that hard to embrace.

People don’t make changes easily. Now is one of the rare moments when the shortcomings of human systems are made plain to everyone. The early environmental evidence from the pandemic proves humans can change their carbon impact quickly and dramatically. We don’t have to just go back to the economy we had. Now is a time to set new clean economy goals.

Join the coronavirus conversation in the Earthling Forum.

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