All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Moving on after Covid

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One of the many memes making the rounds

I’m always looking for a silver lining.  Not easy to do with Covid-19.  But could this pandemic hold lessons on how to help the environment in the long term?

On the environmental front, the record is mixed.  Yes, air pollution emissions have drastically dropped, most notably in China and northern Italy.  This includes not just greenhouse gas emissions, but ordinary air pollutants, which is why the air in these regions is now cleaner than it has been in decades.  This is important, since there is an indication that people that live in areas with poor air quality are more vulnerable to respiratory diseases such as Covid-19.

That the air is cleaner is a result of reduced emissions from factories and traffic where economies are in partial or full shutdown.  I expect that hospitalization statistics will also reveal fewer cases due to traffic accidents.  (Mind you, there has been a report of more bicycle accidents in NYC, as commuters are taking to their bikes to avoid crowded subways.)  And the canals in Venice are clearer, if not really cleaner (that would take a miracle) but the increased visibility is a result of fewer boats churning up the waters.

Biking accidents aside, all these things are good.  The fact that they are the result of a tragic epidemic is not, obviously.  Once the pandemic subsides (as it will), can we find ways to keep the air cleaner, the sky bluer, the GHG emissions lower, and the roads safer?

No easy task, obviously.  China is gradually emerging from its shutdown, and emissions are creeping up with the reboot of the manufacturing sector.  And we need that manufacturing activity.  We need it to address this crisis: masks and gloves, respirators, test kits and analytical equipment, all these are badly needed worldwide and few countries besides China have the heft to meet the current needs.  But it is also needed, in the longer term, in the environmental sector.

Take solar panels.  Australians keep surprising us; they were the first to publish about toilet paper hoarding, and they have also started a run on solar panels.  Just like for toilet paper, the rationale is obscure, but installers are starting to fear that they will soon run out of solar panels.  Most are manufactured in China.  We need China back.

Many environmentalists have expressed frustration that the urgency and coordinated response that arose from Covid has been nowhere near in evidence when facing climate change.  There are some good reasons for that. Eric Galbraith and Ross Otto notice four key differences: Covid, a disease, elicits spontaneous, instinctive fear; as opposed to the climate, Covid is a fast-moving threat; there are well established, clear strategies to tackle a pandemic; and individual countries, or even towns, can go it alone, decide on measures to protect themselves independently of what happens elsewhere.

Still, are there some lessons that we can learn – how measures that fight Covid could be adapted to fight climate change?  Maybe.  Climatologist Katharine Hayhoe was recently interviewed on CBC’s Quirks & Quarks:

“What we are seeing are very significant reductions not only in carbon emissions, but in air pollutants,” she told Quirks & Quarks. “In fact one of my colleagues at Stanford, Marshall Burke, has estimated that the reduction in air pollution in China may have saved many more lives than were actually lost in the pandemic.”

To be clear, Hayhoe is not suggesting in any way that this pandemic is a good thing. “Anything that causes human suffering is a tragedy, but it highlights the fact that often we have become accustomed to — and blasé to — issues like air pollution that are responsible for millions of deaths every year.”

Hayhoe thinks there are still lessons to be learned, including the importance of pushing industry towards clean energy sources. “I think that this pandemic really emphasizes the fact that everything is connected,” she said.

We also know that the pandemic will be around for awhile.  If measures such as social isolation are to be effective, they will need to remain in place for months.

My employer, a local university, is still open for business – but classrooms are closed.  All of us have been switching to on-line teaching (with varying degree of success) and of course to on-line meetings.  Many other workplaces that could have resorted to similar approaches. All of a sudden telecommuting seems the safe thing to do.

Of course, it is annoying to remain cooped in, and when the all-clear is sounded, all of us will be hungry for human contact – bring on the meetings, you bet!  They may be almost as welcome as socializing in parties and eating out.

But once the smoke clears, after that initial enthusiasm, I hope we take stock of the situation.  By then we will have developed a lot of on-line resources; I have been impressed by how creative my colleagues are.  I hope that this will not be all for naught; I hope that we continue with some of these resources, the ones that proved to work well.  If half of our classes remain in on-line delivery mode, say, that translates into half the commuting, half the emissions, half the risks from car commuting.

This logic is likely to translate into many other workplaces that have been forced to transition.  Give it enough time, and some of the adaptations will be seen as efficient.  Work place efficiency is usually a dirty expression, one that is synonymous with cutbacks and extra work for the remaining workers. But what if it meant what it always should have meant: the ability to do a better job with whatever resources we have.  I know that every instructor at my school is thinking about core material: what is really essential, as opposed to the merely traditional.  If our courses are less packed with “stuff”, maybe our students can really master what turns out to be essential.  And the environment, too, will benefit.

But some industries need a lot of energy.  Dr Charles Donovan from London’s Imperial College Business School, made the following comments to Forbes:

“I think we’re entering a whole new phase of volatility,” Donovan said. “These are the unfortunate repercussions of a global market that’s exposed to the volatility of the oil markets, and suffers when unforeseeable events like coronavirus arise at the worst time.”

Donovan suggested that such volatility was built into the global economy owing to over-reliance on fossil fuels. “We are now seeing the downsides of the choices we’ve made about the kind of energy economy that we have,” he said.

And then there is the economic stimulus. Part of the federal help package for the oil patch is supposed to go towards the clean-up of abandoned oil wells, which is great.  I hope that it goes beyond that and includes support for other energy sectors: solar, wind and geothermal.  I hope that some of the stimulus money for the manufacturing sector will go towards adaptation and flexibility – the very things we would need now, where a factory equipped with a bank of 3D laser printers can turn on a dime from making air-conditioning units to making hospital ventilators.  I hope that some of the money meant for the hospitality sector goes towards reinforcing links with the local farms.  I hope that the stimulus helps us to become more resilient when global supply chains fall apart – and generates local jobs.  I hope that we learn to devote resources to sectors that look after the helpless, the old, the sick, the homeless.

Or something like that.  You get the picture.  It would just be very sad if we aim for a return to the status-quo ante.  We’d be faced with the same problem as before.  We’d be just licking our wounds, sparing a thought for those health professionals who lost their lives because, as a society, we weren’t prepared.  And repeating the same mistakes, while we know that climate change will be exacerbating the pandemics to come.  But if we’re smart, and that’s the silver lining, we’ll move in the right direction: a society that is environmentally cleaner, but also much more caring and fairer.

 

Written by enviropaul

March 23, 2020 at 4:37 pm

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